Local Theater Owner Joins Suit against Murphy

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TRENTON - U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti Aug. 18 dashed movie theater owners’ hopes that they could reopen their venues for indoor entertainment.

The judge ruled that the state “presented conceivable justification” for keeping movie theaters closed, while allowing indoor activities at churches, libraries, and shopping malls.

The plaintiffs in the case included the National Association of Theater Owners, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark USA, and other national and regional organizations, along with local movie entrepreneurs Clint Bunting and Brett Denafo, owners of the Harbor Square Theater, in Stone Harbor.

Theater owners argued their case on free speech and equal protection claims. Martinotti found the state had valid reasons for treating movie theaters differently.

He noted the difficulty of enforcing a mask mandate in a dark theater, the prolonged nature of the movie-going experience, and the likelihood that masks would be removed for extended periods to consume food and beverages.

Martinotti did not credit the free speech claims since he noted that the lockdown order does not target the content of the movies, but rather the indoor nature of the venues.

Bunting called the ruling “very disappointing.” He said that the state actions were tantamount to a politician picking and choosing “who can make money and who cannot.”

“I struggle to understand how a casino, arcade, and churches can be open but not movie theaters at 25% or 30% when they will exceed all CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.”

“Just think,” he added, “I can rent the theater to a church or school to utilize but I can’t have patrons watch a religious movie.”

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