The Department of Justice announced it will aid a Virginia church suing Gov. Ralph Northam after a pastor was threatened with jail time or a $2,500 fine for hosting a 16-person church service on Palm Sunday. According to Northam’s shelter-in-place restrictions, churches cannot hold services with more than 10 people.
The DOJ filed a Statement of Interest in a Virginia federal court citing freedom of religion in support of Lighthouse Fellowship Church, a congregation in Chincoteague Island, Virginia. According to the DOJ’s statement, the congregation serves, among others, recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes.
On April 5, Lighthouse Fellowship Church alleged pastor Kevin Wilson was summoned by police and threatened with a fine or jail time for holding a 16-person service in a 225-seat sanctuary.
“The church held a sixteen-person worship service in its 225-seat sanctuary while maintaining rigorous social-distancing and personal-hygiene protocols. At the end of the service, the Chincoteague police department issued Lighthouse’s pastor a criminal citation and summons, based on the governor’s executive orders,” the DOJ statement reads. “State officials said Wilson and the church violated the Virginia Constitution by breaking state-imposed social distancing restrictions intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
Northam’s executive order bans in-person religious services of more than 10 people, meanwhile it permits gatherings of more than 10 people in non-essential retail businesses such as liquor stores, dry cleaners, department stores, and more.
“For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “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. The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to monitor any infringement of the Constitution and other civil liberties, and we will take additional appropriate action if and when necessary.”
The DOJ believes Northam’s executive order violates Lighthouse Fellowship Church’s constitutional right to exercise freedom of religion, and argue the order specifically attacks religious gatherings while permitting secular activities to take place without restrictions.
“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 DOJ report reads.
The DOJ took action in a similar religious liberty case involving churches in Greenville, Mississippi, where police officers issued $500 tickets to church members who refused to leave the parking lot for a drive-in Easter church service.
Under the direction of Attorney General William Barr, the DOJ will work hand-in-hand to uphold religious liberty cases throughout the country. The DOJ plans to file in cases that have “important issues of religious liberty in courts at every level, from trial courts to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
“Religious liberty is a fundamental principle of enduring importance in America, enshrined in our Constitution and other sources of federal law,” Barr said.