Justice Department Backs Virginia Church’s Religious Freedom Lawsuit Against Gov. Northam

AP Photo/Steve Helber

 

On Sunday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) supported a Virginia church in its religious freedom lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam, who issued a shutdown order that prohibited churches and other religious institutions from holding services amid the coronavirus outbreak. The complaint comes after Kevin Wilson, the pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church, was charged with a misdemeanor for conducting an in-person service in violation of the order.

Liberty Counsel, a legal nonprofit group, filed the suit after the police department broke up the service and charged the pastor. The legal action alleges that the authorities violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and religion clauses along with Virginia statutes that protect religious practices.

Officials working with the DOJ concurred with the church’s assertion that the burden of proof is on the state to demonstrate that the Governor’s order is the “least restrictive” method of ensuring the safety of residents during the Wuhan virus outbreak. According to The Washington Examiner, the current order limits religious gatherings to fewer than ten attendees.

Matthew Schneider, one of the DOJ officials who filed the agency’s statement, told The Washington Examiner that states should not violate the rights of citizens during a crisis. “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,” he asserted. “Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”

The church filed the lawsuit late in the month of April, explaining how law enforcement entered the church while it was holding a service. There were only 16 churchgoers in attendance, and they were practicing social distancing in the building, which seats 293 people. The legal action states that the police cited Wilson and informed the congregation that if they came to the church to participate in an Easter service, everyone would be given a citation.

The church’s legal counsel also pointed out that businesses were allowed to conduct operations in a limited capacity during the shutdown. They provided images showing cars parked in Lowe’s and Walmart’s parking lots. It also showed pictures of more than ten people social distancing in a room where the Governor gave remarks on the state’s pandemic response.

The DOJ’s statement argued that treating churches differently from businesses could demonstrate that Northam is unfairly burdening churches by holding them to a different standard. In a press release, officials wrote:

“Because the executive orders prohibit Lighthouse’s sixteen-person, socially distanced gathering in a 225-seat church but allow similar secular conduct, such as a gathering of 16 lawyers in a large law firm conference room, the governor’s executive orders may constitute a violation of the church’s constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion.”

The statement also explained, “It will be difficult for the Commonwealth to justify having one set of rules that allows for secular gatherings — such as in-person operations for any non-retail business and various other exemptions permitting large-scale retail gatherings — while denying to Lighthouse the ability to worship in modest numbers with appropriate social distancing and sanitizing precautions.”

Last week, Attorney General William Barr issued an order to federal prosecutors instructing them to identify areas where state and local shutdown orders could violate the rights of citizens. Given the fact that several other states have issued measures that restrict church services, it makes sense that the DOJ would weigh in on a lawsuit involving a church that has been penalized for holding services despite observing social distancing practices.

As states prepare to restart commerce as the number of COVID-19 cases decreases, it seems likely that more and more institutions will challenge the shutdown orders. Moreover, as these restrictions become less necessary, it will become more difficult for progressive politicians and the corporate media to defend them. Whether they like it or not, America is going to get back to work sooner rather than later.

 

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