A West Lafayette resident is taking Mayor John Dennis and the city to court after the mayor recently signed an executive order requiring masks to be worn in businesses and outdoors when social distancing is not possible.
Michael Bryant filed his complaint on Wednesday, according to court records, hours before Gov. Eric Holcomb announced his statewide mask mandate that began Monday.
Bryant also filed a motion requesting a preliminary injunction, alleging that Indiana’s constitution quantifies political expression as a “core value” and that Dennis’ order “infringes upon inalienable rights and usurps power that is inherent in the citizens of West Lafayette.”
That motion was denied Monday by Tippecanoe Circuit Court Judge Sean Persin.
The original complaint alleges that Dennis’ order is unconstitutional and falls outside his purview as mayor. It further claims the order violates people’s rights to liberty, as well as the ability to assemble and be secure against unreasonable searches.
Dennis said Tuesday that he still feels confident in his executive order, though he described the more than 300 angry emails and phone calls he’s received complaining about the mask mandate as offensive. The mayor noted that in his years both as a mayor and police officer, he’s never observed this kind of reaction for “doing the right thing.”
“I feel no remorse in (the order), at all,” Dennis said. “If they want to stand on principle and be mad at me, go ahead.”
The mayor said the executive order was an easy decision to make after examining all the data on face coverings, and he called the logic behind being vehemently opposed to mask-wearing “selfish.”
“It’s a very simple step,” Dennis said. “I know it’s inconvenient. I know a lot of people think it’s misguided. … (But) it’s a public health crisis.”
Bryant’s complaint claims that the West Lafayette resident plans to exercise his civil liberties and peacefully protest the mandate by not wearing a mask.
“He can no longer enjoy public areas within the City of West Lafayette and freely speak about any subject, including discriminatory enforcement and abuse of government power,” court documents read, “without violating the Mayor's Mask Order, unless he wears a mask.”
Bryant did not respond Tuesday afternoon for comment through his lawyer.
Dennis explained the use of an executive order as opposed to a city council–approved ordinance as a matter of urgency. Moreover, nearly all council members voiced overwhelming support for a mask mandate during a council meeting earlier this month, when Dennis first brought up his intentions to mandate face coverings.
Since Bryant’s complaint was filed, Holcomb’s executive order has also come into effect, though the governor's mandate arrived without the consequences it initially included. When Holcomb first announced the order Wednesday, he said violating the order would count as a Class B misdemeanor.
In the executive order posted two days later, however, Holcomb left it up to state and local health departments to be responsible for enforcement through “education about the importance of wearing face coverings and dispelling myths and misconceptions about the use and/or benefits of the requirement.”
Dennis’ order, on the other hand, came with warnings of hefty fines for non-complying residents: $100 for the first offense, and $250 for each thereafter.
“It’s our duty to make sure that we’re in a position to not just suggest something,” Dennis said, “but to suggest it and then have some teeth in it.”
Since the city’s order went into effect roughly two weeks ago, several concerned citizens have called into the West Lafayette Police Department over the order, but no one has been arrested or fined yet for noncompliance, Dennis said.
The full text of Bryant’s complaint references the backlash mask mandates have received nationwide, as the wearing of face coverings has become a political issue in the U.S.
It claims that “there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that mask-wearing orders are an effective means of reducing transmission of COVID-19, particularly among college students,” though it later states that “the purpose of this lawsuit is not to reach a conclusion on the effectiveness of mask-wearing.
“Moreover, refusing to wear a mask has become a political statement because individuals who resist mask-wearing mandates are considered to be ‘Trump supporters,’ which is a label that has a negative connotation,” the lawsuit says.
As recently as July 14 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reiterated the science that supports the wearing of face coverings as a method to slow the spread of the virus.
“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a press release. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting."
A hearing in the case has not been scheduled as of Tuesday afternoon.