Pence denounces Va. officials’ ‘beyond the pale’ punishment of church that held in-person service

Vice President Mike Pence participates in a coronavirus update briefing Thursday, April 16, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House.
Vice President Mike Pence participates in a coronavirus update briefing Thursday, April 16, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. | Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday denounced Virginia officials for punishing a congregation whose pastor was threatened with jail or a fine for holding an in-person worship service of 16 people on Palm Sunday.

Pastor Kevin Wilson of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island was cited by officials for holding a worship service on April 5 that had 16 people in attendance.

On an episode of “The Brian Kilmeade Show” on Wednesday, Pence said that “even in the midst of a national emergency, every American enjoys our cherished liberties, including the freedom of religion.”

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“The very idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia would sanction a church for having 16 people come to a Psalm Sunday service when I think the church actually seats about 250 was just beyond the pale,” the vice president said.

“We are going to stand by men and women of faith of every religion in this country and protect, even in this challenging time, protect their freedom of religion.”

Pence also commended Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice for siding with the church as it sues Virginia over the threat of being punished for holding the service.

“I'm truly grateful for Attorney General Barr standing by religious liberty,” he continued. “I wanted to speak out in favor of the DOJ's action.”

On Palm Sunday, Wilson was served a summons for holding a church service that violated a state order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people and carried a possible punishment of jail time and/or a fine of $2,500.

In response, Wilson filed a lawsuit against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, arguing that the order unfairly targeted his congregation, even when they followed social distancing guidelines.

“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.”

Lighthouse and its pastor are being represented by the Liberty Counsel, a conservative law firm that often handles religious liberty cases on behalf of churches.

“Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community,” said Matt Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.

“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.”

The DOJ announced on May 3 that it had filed a Statement of Interest in the suit, supporting the church’s motion for an injunction pending an appeal in the case.

“Plaintiff has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution that the Commonwealth’s executive orders have prohibited religious gatherings at places of worship, even with social distancing and personal hygiene protocols, while allowing comparable secular gatherings to proceed with social distancing,” read the statement of interest, in part.

“It thus becomes the Commonwealth’s burden to demonstrate that it has compelling reasons to treat Plaintiff differently than similar non-religious businesses, and that it has pursued its objectives through the least restrictive means.”

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