Judge dismisses Virginia church’s lawsuit against governor over COVID-19 restrictions

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.
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. | Zach Gibson/Getty Images

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit leveled by a church against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam over previous coronavirus pandemic restrictions on in-person worship attendance.

In an order issued last week, U.S. District Court Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen ruled against the lawsuit brought by Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Chincoteague Island.

At issue were executive orders passed by Northam last year that greatly limited in-person gatherings, including worship services at houses of worship. Lighthouse was cited for violating the orders. 

Allen concluded in part that the lawsuit was moot since the earlier executive orders had been replaced by new orders that allowed for larger in-person worship gatherings in Virginia.

Allen also concluded that Northam was immune from being sued due to the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”

Last April, Lighthouse Pastor Kevin Wilson was cited by local authorities for holding an in-person worship service on Palm Sunday that had 16 people in attendance.

At the time, Virginia restricted in-person worship services to no more than 10 people, with any violators facing a punishment of up to a year in jail and a fine of as much as $2,500.

In response, Wilson sued the state last April, arguing that the measure violated his religious freedom and that the service adhered to various public health guidelines like social distancing.

“Absent emergency relief from this Court, Lighthouse, its pastor, and all members and/or attendees will suffer immediate and irreparable injury from the threat of criminal prosecution for the mere act of engaging in the free exercise of religion and going to church,” read the suit.

“Indeed, if Lighthouse, its pastor, or its members do not subscribe to what Governor Northam has prescribed as orthodox in a worship service, they risk becoming criminals in the Commonwealth.”

In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in support of the church, contending the congregation had a “likelihood of success on the merits of its claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

Last July, an order was issued in the General District Court for the County of Accomack, officially dropping the charges against the pastor over the April service.

“We are pleased these charges have now been dropped as we continue to uphold the church’s First Amendment right to exist and freely assemble,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, which represented Wilson, said in a statement at the time.

“Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church and these criminal charges reflect his blatant unconstitutional actions against Pastor Wilson.”

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