DOJ backs church after Virginia governor threatened pastor with jail time

by WorldTribune Staff, May 4, 2020

Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s draconian coronavirus lockdown order included sending police in protective garb to serve a summons on the pastor of a church for violating the state’s social distancing restrictions.

Pastor Kevin Wilson of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island was threatened with jail time or a $2,500 fine after he held a service on Palm Sunday (April 5) with 16 people spaced far apart. The church holds up to 293 people.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. / YouTube

Now, the church is suing Northam — and the Department of Justice is siding with the church.

“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,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband said in a Statement of Interest on May 3.

“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 statement said.

Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, representing the pastor, accused Northam of discriminating against the church and violating the First Amendment.

Churches have been urged to switch to virtual services in lieu of in-person sermons, but Staver said the Lighthouse Fellowship did not have the capacity to do that and many parishioners didn’t have access to the Internet.

“Lighthouse Fellowship Church protected the health and safety of the 16 people by requiring them to be spread far apart in the 293-seat sanctuary,” Staver said. “The church does not have Internet. Some people do not have cars and they depend on the ministry of the church for their physical and spiritual needs. But because the church had six more people than the 10 allowed by Gov. Ralph Northam, the pastor is being criminally charged. There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template that works for every church. We need to balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people. Using an arbitrary number of 10 people for every church is not the answer.”

The DOJ’s May 3 Statement of Interest is part of Attorney General William Barr’s initiative directing Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, to review state and local policies to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia’s governor issued executive orders that ban in-person religious services of more than 10 people while permitting such gatherings of workers in any non-retail business and an array of retail businesses, including liquor stores, dry cleaners and department stores. Violations of the orders allow for criminal charges and carry penalties of up to a year in a jail and a $2,500 fine,” the DOJ’s statement said.

Lighthouse filed suit but the district court denied the church’s request for preliminary relief, stating in part that “[a]lthough [professional-services] businesses may not be essential, the exception crafted on their behalf is essential to prevent joblessness.”

Dreiband said: “For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis. 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.”

Dreiband, who is overseeing the Justice Department’s effort to monitor state and local polices relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, added: “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. Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”

In its Statement of Interest, the DOJ said that governments may take necessary and temporary measures to meet genuine emergencies, and that states and localities should be afforded substantial deference in their response to emergency situations such as the current pandemic.

“But,” the Statement explains, “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”

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