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Philadelphia can refuse to issue parade permits during a pandemic, a federal judge has ruled

A federal judge has denied a request from a Philadelphia veterans group to force the city to allow parades during the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Society march in the Bridesburg Memorial Day Parade, in Philadelphia, Monday, May 28, 2018.
Members of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Society march in the Bridesburg Memorial Day Parade, in Philadelphia, Monday, May 28, 2018.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

A veterans group with backing from the region’s top federal prosecutor can’t force Philadelphia to permit parades during a pandemic, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In an 11-page decision, U.S. District Judge Nitza Quiñones-Alejandro denied a request for preliminary injunction filed in October by the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Society, noting “this pandemic has wreaked havoc worldwide, prompting national and local governments to enforce lockdowns and impose strict restrictions on interpersonal gatherings in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.”

The veterans group, which participates in parades with an honor guard and rifle teams, said Mayor Jim Kenney’s ban on large-scale events like the Mummers Parade and Thanksgiving Day Parade violated its right to free speech and assembly under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Kenney announced the ban in mid-July in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain, who accused city officials of unconstitutionally discriminating against parade planners by denying them permits while allowing spontaneous street protests about racial injustice, filed a statement of interest in the case. The veterans group’s request for an injunction was filed by the law firm where McSwain was a partner before President Donald Trump named him U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania..

Quiñones-Alejandro said Kenney’s announcement that the city would not issue parade permits amounted to little more than a news release, not backed by an executive order, and that his administration has since “implicitly and expressly rescinded” some restrictions in a series of orders from September to November.

The city, she noted, would not issue permits for parades, protests or any large events but is also not dispersing gatherings when they occur.

» READ MORE: These are the current Philadelphia coronavirus guidelines

She also ruled the harm the veterans group was claiming to suffer does not “outweigh the potential harm to the general public” if the city was forced to issue parade permits.

“Here, granting a preliminary injunction may result in additional COVID-19 transmissions, including more cases of serious illness and death,” Quiñones-Alejandro wrote.

A lawyer for the veterans group did not immediately respond for comment on Wednesday.

Kenney spokesperson Lauren Cox said in a statement that the ruling “reaffirms the city’s ability to curb the spread of COVID-19 by placing reasonable restrictions on large outdoor events and gatherings.” She added: “Our administration will continue to do whatever is in the best interest of our residents and their health.”

McSwain used the ruling to declare victory and to congratulate the veterans group.

“The lawsuit has achieved its purpose: The court has now confirmed that the city has abandoned its unconstitutional policy of favoring protests over other constitutionally protected speech, like parades,” he said in a statement.

Although the Mummers Parade has been canceled, some Mummers are apparently planning a New Year’s Day protest in place of a parade.

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.