Judge denies request to allow Easter church services of more than 10 people in Virginia

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. |

A judge has denied a request by a Virginia man to allow for church services to take place on Easter in the state, despite a state order barring large gatherings to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Larry Hughes, a retired teacher from Russell County, had filed legal action against the Commonwealth for its stay-at-home order, which did not exempt religious events.

Judge Michael Moore denied the injunction request on Thursday, meaning that church gatherings of more than 10 people will not be permitted by Easter Sunday.

“The equities do not weigh in [petitioner's] favor based on this pandemic,” ruled Moore, as reported by the Bristol Herald Courier.  

“And to say that this injunction to be granted would be in the public interest is not defensible. So the court is going to deny the request for temporary injunction.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring expressed support for the injunction denial, saying in a statement that the order was a matter of public health.

“Science tells us that social distancing is the most important thing we can do to save lives and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that’s exactly what these orders are doing,” stated Herring, as reported by the Herald Courier.

“We are all having to sacrifice right now to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe, and our win today maintains these crucial safety measures.”

Last month, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 55, which prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. The measure contained no exemption for religious events.

On Monday, Hughes filed a lawsuit in Russell County Circuit Court against Northam’s order, arguing in the complaint that the measure was a threat to religious freedom.

“EO 55 … ignores the special status and protections afforded Virginians relative to their religious liberties recognized, and more clearly amplified than in the United States Constitution,” stated the complaint.

“Article 1, Section 16 of the Virginia Constitution clearly states that the way a person discharges their religion cannot be directed by force, nor shall he be restrained in his body.”

T. Shea Cook, the lawyer for Hughes, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after the Thursday hearing that he considered the injunction denial to be a “dangerous precedent.”

“We’d hoped to be able to get some relief prior to the Easter weekend, but ultimately we knew it was going to be difficult,” said Cook. “We’re talking about a fundamental right that — in a time of crisis — has been eroded.”

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