‘Walk as free people’: Conservatives rally at the Pa. Capitol to celebrate referenda wins

Satet Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks at a Capitol steps rally in Harrisburg on June 5, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

As pandemic restrictions lifted across the state this week, critics of Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive actions over the past 15 months took a victory lap on the Pennsylvania Capitol steps on Saturday.

For two-and-a-half hours, about 100 attendees whose ranks included three state lawmakers, bikers, and skeptics of the 2020 election, listened to music, prayed, and listened to speeches celebrating the passage of two constitutional amendments limiting Wolf’s — and all future governors’ — executive powers during an emergency.

“When the governor is no longer acting for our good, it is a right, it is a good, it is a necessity, to rebel,” Matthew Bellis, head of ReOpen PA and an organizer of rallies opposing Wolf during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, told the crowd. 

Bellis was among the organizers of the very first anti-lockdown protests in April 2020, which saw thousands of people crowd the Capitol steps to hear speeches opposing Wolf’ and his policies.

Gov’t ‘can’t save us from the virus’: In raucous Capitol protest, thousands call on Wolf to reopen all of Pa.

Saturday’s crowd was much smaller. It also was buoyed by the attendance of members of Audit the Vote PA, a group that wants the Pennsylvania Legislature to approve their own audit of the 2020 election, citing fraud. 

Former President Donald Trump has made similar accusations. And he filed lawsuits claiming the same. But all of them were ruled against in federal court for lack of evidence.

Audit the Vote PA sent a call to attend the rally Friday night, according to independent far-right movement researcher Shawn Breen.

Among the speakers was state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, who played up his recent visit to Arizona, to see that state’s own ongoing election audit of the 2020 presidential results.

Mastriano urged attendees to back his efforts to support a Pennsylvania audit, as well as his bill banning the state or local governments, including school districts, from mandating any vaccines.

“We need to walk as free people,” Mastriano told the crowd.”You’re sovereign over your own body.”

Such a bill could run up against U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which has found that vaccinations are within a local government’s police powers. 

Like all states, Pennsylvania already has mandatory vaccinations for children in public school. But the COVID-19 vaccine won’t be added to the list, the Wolf administration said last year.

Both the House and Senate are set to be in next week, and will be for the rest of June to finish the state budget. 

Other lawmakers in attendance Saturday, such as state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, told attendees to be ready to back other conservative priorities, such as permit-less concealed carry, his own anti-vaccine bill, and a new proposal to ban critical race theory in public schools.

Also on the agenda next week could be a resolution, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, to partly extend Wolf’s emergency powers until October. 

Empowered by referendum, Harrisburg GOP moves to terminate some — but not all — of Wolf’s pandemic powers

The resolution would restore the work search requirement for unemployment benefits, and ban any future business closures or stay-at-home orders.

But the disaster declaration would be left in place to allow federal disaster emergency funds to flow into Pennsylvania for the coming months, and allow for the continued suspension of hundreds of regulations. 

Some conservative lawmakers, such as Diamond, have filed amendments to Benninghoff’s resolution to move up the disaster emergency’s end date to June or July. 

A spokesperson for Benninghoff said the GOP leader was aware of the amendments, and that discussions were ongoing to “formulate the final legislative response” to Wolf’s disaster powers.

After Saturday’s rally, Bellis said he wasn’t familiar with Benninghoff’s resolution. But, he argued, the people of Pennsylvania made clear in the referendum that “we want to reopen the state and end the disaster declaration.”

Since the end of Memorial Day weekend, all occupancy restrictions have been lifted on Pennsylvania businesses. 

The only mandate still in effect is a masking order, which legal experts say stems from a separate law unaffected by the May referendums. Wolf has said he’ll lift that by the end of June, citing rising vaccination rates.

All told, 27,000 Pennsylvanians have died of COVID-19 since last March.