A Virginia pastor, who was served a summons for holding a service for 16 people on Palm Sunday, and his church have filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam for issuing executive orders banning religious gatherings with more than 10 people, saying it violated the Virginia Constitution.
Liberty Counsel, which is representing Pastor Kevin Wilson and Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, filed the lawsuit Friday against Northam, whose COVID Order 55 provides for a penalty of up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
Police served a summons to Wilson for holding a church service on April 5 for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that is rated for 293 people, Liberty Counsel said in a statement.
A police officer entered the church without identifying himself and “abruptly” told the congregation “they could not have more than 10 people spaced six feet apart,” the law firm said.
“Then, after the service, two police officers entered the church in full mask and gloves and asked to speak with the pastor. They issued him a summons and informed him that if he had service on Easter, all attending would get the same summons.”
Liberty Counsel said the parking lots of multiple commercial establishments were filled with hundreds of cars Thursday. “Yet, Gov. Northam criminalizes religious worship that exceeds 10 people.”
“Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community,” The law firm’s chair, Mat Staver, said. “This church does not have internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online.”
Staver argued that Wilson protected the health and safety of the 16 people that attended on Palm Sunday by requiring them to be spread far apart in the sanctuary. “But because the church had six more people than the 10 allowed by the governor, the pastor is being criminally charged. 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,” he said.
Quoting the judgment in W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, Liberty Counsel noted that the Supreme Court has unequivocally stated, “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
The Commonwealth of Virginia, the statement underlines, “does not have the authority to dictate the manner or form of worship, whether that be online or a 10-person limit.”
Earlier, a Russell County man, Larry Hughes, filed a suit against Northam in Russell County Circuit Court looking for an injunction to allow churches and other faith communities to hold limitless group assemblies, according to Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“[Hughes] will not know the number of participants that may be at a service until he arrives,” the lawsuit read. “Even the pastor of a church may fear numerical non-compliance and simply close the doors to avoid turning out participants during service if the number suddenly exceeds the permissible limit.”
Defending Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring said in a brief he filed, “As a person of faith, the Governor recognized that the temporary gatherings restriction would be particularly hard on religious communities. … The Governor has issued guidance designed to help faith communities maintain their communion and worked with religious leaders to find creative solutions, including online and drive-in services.
“Time and again, large gatherings have provided fertile ground for transmission of this deadly virus — and in-person religious services have not been spared.”
However, Hughes’ lawyer, T. Shead Cook, responded by saying the orders placed “commercial/secular interests above the guaranteed freedom of religion.”
Judge Michael Moore denied the injunction request by Hughes.