Circuit court rejects church's lawsuit against Virginia COVID-19 worship restrictions

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during an unveiling ceremony for Rumors of War, a statue by artist Kehinde Wiley, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on December 10, 2019, in Richmond, Virginia. |

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a church's lawsuit against Virginia’s 2020 COVID-19 lockdown rules that restricted in-person worship, labeling the matter moot since the restrictions were lifted.

In a unanimous decision released Tuesday, the panel concluded that since the specific lockdown orders in question put in place by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam were ended in June 2020 and the state of emergency for Virginia ended in July, the lawsuit filed by Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague is moot.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church and Pastor Kevin Wilson sued Northam over the legality of executive orders that restricted in-person worship during the pandemic lockdowns.

Judge Robert King, the author of the panel opinion, wrote that he believed “no live controversy exists” despite the claims of the church that the restrictions could always return.

“[I]t is entirely speculative to assert that Governor Northam will declare a new state of emergency in Virginia and reinstate restrictions on religious exercise that have not been in place for more than a year,” wrote King.

“Lighthouse’s contention implies that, absent a change in Virginia law that would limit the Governor’s emergency powers, this controversy remains live. We decline to rule that such a change in Virginia law is necessary to moot this dispute.”

A specific issue in the case is an April 5, 2020 worship service attended by 16 people, which went against the state order limiting in-person religious gatherings to no more than 10 people. 

Following the service, Wilson was cited by authorities and faced the possibility of a fine or even jail. The state's prosecution of the worship service drew condemnation from then-Vice President Mike Pence. The charges against Wilson were dropped in July 2020. 

Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal nonprofit representing Lighthouse Church, released a statement at the time denouncing the gathering restriction as a clear example of discrimination.

“Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community,” stated Staver.

“We must balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people but picking an arbitrary number of 10 people for every church is not the answer.”

U.S. District Court Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, an Obama appointee, ruled against Lighthouse in late January, concluding that the lawsuit is moot and that the governor was immune from prosecution.

“There is no ongoing violation of federal law in this case. The Orders on which Plaintiff bases its Complaint are no longer in effect,” wrote Allen. “The Court finds that Governor Northam is immune under the Eleventh Amendment to Plaintiff’s state statutory and state constitutional claims. Plaintiff’s remaining claims are dismissed.”

Liberty Counsel argued that Northam should not be immune in this case. 

“Governor Ralph Northam is not immune as the defendant in this lawsuit regarding his unconstitutional COVID executive orders," Staver said in October. "The governor issued and enforced his illegal orders and cannot now escape responsibility.”

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