‘Prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than 10 … has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion…’
(Claire Russel, Liberty Headlines) The Justice Department is siding with a Virginia church that filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam over his unconstitutional attempts to prohibit religious gatherings of more than 10 people.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church sued Northam after Virginia police officers abruptly entered and interrupted the church’s Palm Sunday service on April 15.
Despite having 16 congregants in attendance, churchgoers had been adhering to the federal government’s social distancing restrictions.
Regardless, law-enforcement officials charged the church’s pastor, Kevin Wilson, with violating Northam’s shelter-in-place order, handing him a summons with a penalty up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500.
On Sunday, Justice Department prosecutors filed a statement of interest supporting the church’s lawsuit, arguing that Lighthouse Fellowship Church has a “strong case” against Northam’s executive order since the order allows other venues, such as liquor stores and law offices, to remain open.
“Permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than 10—-even with social distancing measures and other precautions—has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” the Justice Department said in its filing.
Unless Northam can prove that his “disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means,” Northam should be held accountable for violating the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment, the DOJ added.
Virginia officials have claimed Northam’s executive order does not “operate in the manner the plaintiff and the federal government describe,” arguing that claims of religious discrimination are false.
U.S. District Judge Arena Allen also denied Lighthouse Fellowship Church’s request for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction, arguing that Northam’s decision to allow certain businesses to remain open “is essential to prevent joblessness,” whereas churches are not essential.
Attorneys representing the church have appealed the ruling to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and are hopeful that the court will reconsider the ruling given the Justice Department’s recent intervention.
“The discriminatory targeting of religious worship by limiting congregants to 10 people even with social distancing while allowing similar secular gatherings violates the First Amendment,” Mat Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which represents Lighthouse Fellowship Church, said in a statement. “Gov. Ralph Northam’s targeting of religious worship is a blatant violation of the Bill of Rights.”