The Justice Department (DOJ) is backing a Virginia church in its case against the state’s Democrat Governor Ralph Northam for threatening the church’s pastors with prison time and fines over a Palm Sunday service attended by 16 people.
The story: Earlier in April, police on Chincoteague Island served Lighthouse Fellowship Church pastor Kevin Wilson with a summons for violating the state’s social distancing guidelines during a Palm Sunday service attended by 16 people in a church with a capacity for 225.
Northam has issued an order prohibiting all religious gatherings with 10 or more people but the church claims it followed the state’s social distancing rules during the service.
The religious liberty advocacy group Liberty Counsel, which represents Wilson, said Northam discriminated against the church and violated its First Amendment rights.
The DOJ got involved in the case and issued a statement Sunday saying Northam’s order may be unconstitutional.
“Over the last two months, the governor has issued a series of Executive Orders prohibiting religious gatherings of more than ten people, while permitting secular gatherings of more than ten people to occur under an array of circumstances (collectively, the “Orders”),” the DOJ wrote in a statement of interest defending the church.
“The Orders, however, permit various secular activities resulting in gatherings of more than ten people, so long as “to the extent possible, [they] adhere to social distancing recommendations, enhanced sanitizing practices on common surfaces, and other appropriate workplace guidance from state and federal authorities while in operation,” it noted.
The DOJ added: “For the reasons set forth below, the United States believes that the church has set forth a strong case that the Orders, by exempting other activities permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than ten—even with social distancing measures and other precautions—has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion.”
“Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means, this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the Orders may not be enforced against the church,” the DOJ declared.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, whom Attorney General William Barr tasked with looking into possible violations of the church’s rights, said: “For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis.”
“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,” Breiband said, according to The Daily Caller.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider, whom Barr also instructed to look into the case, said Northam’s order constituted a First Amendment violation against “people who exercise their right to religion.”
“As important as it is that we stay safe during these challenging times, it is also important for states to remember that we do not abandon all of our freedoms in times of emergency,” Schneider said.