The Justice Department is siding with a Virginia Church in a suit filed against Governor Ralph Northam after police threatened its pastor Kevin Wilson with jail time or a $2,500 fine for holding a 16-person Palm Sunday service in violation of the state’s coronavirus lockdown orders.
According to Fox News,
The DOJ decision came after police in protective garb served a summons to the pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, for holding the service on April 5 with 16 people spaced far apart from one another in a church that could fit 293 people. 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.
“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 DOJ said in a statement of interest obtained by Fox News on Sunday.
The pastor responded with a lawsuit. Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization representing the pastor, accused Northam, a Democrat, of discriminating against the church and violating the First Amendment.
“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,” Matthew Schneider, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in a statement. “Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”
Law enforcement has cracked down on religious congregations across the U.S. that have gone forward with services in defiance of lockdown orders during the outbreak and have been threatened heavy summons and fines for deliberately breaking state rules. Many congregations have been encouraged to switch to virtual services while waiting out the pandemic. The pastor, however, argued that his church did not have that capacity to go virtual as many of his congregants did not have access to the internet.
Attorney General Bill Barr said in an interview last month that the DOJ, in some cases, would side with citizens and businesses suing states over coronavirus lockdown orders.
“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. We, you know, we’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place,” Barr told Hugh Hewitt on April 21.
Eric Dreiband, who leads the DOJ’s civil rights division, who Attorney General Barr has tapped to lead a nationwide review of state and local policies to “ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said that exercising religion is “essential” for many people of faith, “especially during a crisis.”