A church cited for shunning blackface/white hoodie-wearing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order now has the federal Department of Justice’s (DOJ) 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.
Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement:
“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.”
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.
Attorney General William Barr spoke out in defense of larger religious gatherings.
On April 14th, AG Bill Barr argued that federal, state and local governments did not have the right to “single out” religious institutions when placing restrictions on public gatherings.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.
For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens,”
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,”
Attorney General Bill Barr also stated last month that the Department of Justice would side with citizens and businesses suing states over coronavirus lockdowns:
Barr told radio host Hugh Hewitt on April 21:
“Well, if people bring those lawsuits, we’ll take a look at it at that time, 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.”