Law & the Courts

DOJ Clashes with Northam over Virginia Church Closures

Democratic candidate for governor Ralph Northam speaks after his election night victory in Fairfax, Va., November 7, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/REUTERS)

The Justice Department is pushing back against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s stay at home order, arguing that churches have been unfairly affected.

The DOJ filed a statement of interest on Sunday in federal court in support of a Chincoteague, Virginia church that sued the state after its pastor was issued a criminal citation for holding a service with 16 people, six more than Northam’s order allows. Meanwhile, other establishments such as liquor stores and law offices are allowed to hold gatherings of more than ten people.

“The United States believes that the church has set forth a strong case that the Orders, by exempting other activities permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than 10 — even with social distancing measures and other precautions — has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” the DOJ wrote in a court filing.

“Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means, this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the Orders may not be enforced against the church,” the Justice Department added.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church requested a temporary restraining order against the Democratic governor as well as an injunction to suspend enforcement of the order after the church’s pastor, Kevin Wilson, was served a summons carrying the possibility of a year in jail or a $2,500 fine.

U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Allen denied the church’s request, ruling that “in incidental disruption of normal practice does not convert the Governor’s broadly applicable Orders into a substantial burden on Plaintiff’s right to practice its religion.”

The exception to the 10 person limit for some businesses “is essential to prevent joblessness at a time when people desperately need to retain their incomes and healthcare, and at a time when unemployment is drastically rising,” the judge added.

Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens, representing Northam, argued in a preliminary response filed Sunday evening that the governor’s stay at home order did not “operate in the manner the plaintiff and the federal government describe.”

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