A Virginia church cited for flouting Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order now has the federal Department of Justice’s backing in its lawsuit against the governor.
The department announced Sunday it had filed a “statement of interest” in a Virginia federal court in support of Lighthouse Fellowship Church, where police cited pastor Kevin Wilson on April 5 for gathering 16 people for a Palm Sunday service in violation of Northam’s order barring gatherings of more than 10 people during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Violators of Northam’s ban – which allowed gatherings of workers at businesses like liquor stores, dry cleaners and department stores – could face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
“For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement. “The Commonwealth of Virginia has offered no good reason for refusing to trust congregants who promise to use care in worship in the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and other workers to do the same.”
Church officials said the pastor maintained “rigorous social-distancing and personal-hygiene protocols” during the service in Lighthouse’s 225-seat church. But at the end of the service, Chincoteague police issued Wilson a criminal citation and summons based on Northam’s order, Justice Department officials said.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church subsequently filed a lawsuit, but a district court denied the church’s request for preliminary relief on Friday, stating in part that “[a]though [professional-services] businesses may not be essential, the exception crafted on their behalf is essential to prevent joblessness,” according to the Justice Department.
The case highlights the need for “states to remember that we do not abandon all of our freedom in times of emergency,” US Attorney Matthew Schneider said.
“Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not,” Schneider said.
Attorney General Bill Barr said last month that the Department of Justice would side with citizens and businesses suing states over coronavirus lockdowns, Fox News reports.
“Well, if people bring those lawsuits, we’ll take a look at it at that time,” Barr told radio host Hugh Hewitt on April 21. “And if we think it’s, you know, justified, we would take a position. That’s what we’re doing now … And if they’re not and people bring lawsuits, we file statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs.”
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