The National Association of Theatre Owners, on behalf of six major movie theatre chains, has filed a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey, claiming a First Amendment right to reopen their locations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Calling their treatment by the state "neither fair nor reasonable," they assert that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy's administration has allowed churches, malls, museums and other establishments to reopen without laying out a timetable for the reopening of movie theatres and other entertainment venues.
The theatre chains involved include AMC, Cinemark, Regal, BJK Entertainment, Bow Tie Cinemas, and Community Theatres.
"Plaintiffs bring this action to ensure that movie theatre are treated equally with other similarly situated places of public assembly, and in order to exercise their First Amendment rights to exhibit films of significant artistic, cultural, political and popular merit," the lawsuit says.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, the theatre chains point to Murphy's executive order allowing indoor religious gatherings limited to 100 people or 25 percent capacity, claiming this represents an "unconstitutional and unlawful" distinction.
"There is no rational basis for Defendants’ distinction between, for example, places of worship and movie theatres for purposes of reopening, yet Defendants have allowed places of worship to reopen while movie theatres must remain closed, with no scheduled date for reopening,” the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, representatives for the major chains have met with state government officials to share "detailed safety protocols that would be implemented for the reopening of movie theatres." Despite that, the chains allege, the state has still "provided no explanation for their disparate treatment of entities with similar risk levels" for COVID-19.
A spokeswoman in Governor Murphy’s office said they do not comment on pending litigation.