On Sunday, the Department of Justice stepped up a lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam of Virgina for his coronavirus restrictions specifically targeting churches. The lawsuit claims that Ralph Northam violated the First Amendment by singling out churches and other religious groups for more strict rules than secular establishments.
In a statement Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel said:
“The discriminatory targeting of religious worship by limiting congregants to 10 people even with social distancing while allowing similar secular gatherings violates the First Amendment. Gov. Ralph Northam’s targeting of religious worship is a blatant violation of the Bill of Rights. I am pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice filed in support of our request for an injunction pending appeal. This discrimination must end.”
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. 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.”
On Palm Sunday (April 5, 2020) The Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, held a 16 person worship service in its 225-seat church while maintaining social-distancing and personal hygiene protocols. Police showed up to the service and issued a pastor a criminal citation and summons. The pastor faced penalties up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Lighthouse retaliated and filed suit but on Friday, a district court denied the church’s request for preliminary relief. The district court claimed that “although businesses may not be essential, the exception crafted on their behalf is essential to prevent joblessness.”
According to PJ Media, The DOJ filed a Statement of Interest in the case, disagreeing with the district court ruling and claiming that Northam has not provided an answer to the charge that he singled out churches for special restrictions.
Churches play a very important humanitarian role during crises, by disrupting or even halting such services creates even more government dependency by destroying the communities and services reliant on private religious community action.
As Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing the church, explains, Lighthouse “helps keep people free of drug addiction, brokenness, mental illness, poverty, and prostitution. Many of the members do not have driver’s licenses and are dependent on the church family for rides to get food, supplies, and go to medical appointments and personal care services like haircuts.” The church has also helped members with electric or gas bills, rent, groceries, physical labor for moving and renovating houses, cooking meals, and more. But more importantly churches fulfill the spiritual need of human beings.
In a statement on the filing, Attorney General William Barr defended the social distancing and stay-at-home orders issued across the country, but he insisted that the coronavirus emergency does not abrogate Americans’ fundamental rights.
“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,” he insisted. “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.”