The Justice Department is siding with a Virginia church suing Gov. Ralph Northam after police threatened pastor Pastor Kevin Wilson of Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Chincoteague with jail time or a $2,500 fine for violating the state's Coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
The church held a 16-person church service on Palm Sunday in a sanctuary that is rated for 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 Justice Department put out a press release on May 3, after filing a Statement of Interest is support of the church:
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.
As alleged by Lighthouse, on April 5, 2020, 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. Lighthouse filed suit and on Friday, 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.'
'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.”
In its Statement of Interest, the United States explains that governments may take necessary and temporary measures to meet genuine emergencies. “But,” the Statement explains, “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”