Days after churchgoers filed a lawsuit against coronavirus restrictions in Virginia limiting in-person religious gatherings to 25 people, Gov. Ralph Northam told Christians ahead of Christmas that they “don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers.”
“Christmas is two weeks away. The holidays are typically times of joy and community. We gather together, we celebrate our faith, and we celebrate with family,” Northam, a Democrat, said at a press conference on Thursday, according to National Review.
He continued, “But this year we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers.”
“Worship with a mask on is still worship," he added. "Worship outside or worship online is still worship.”
The governor then suggested that churchgoers had contributed to the spread of the virus in Virginia. “Quite frankly, we know that a lot of the spread is coming from this because these individuals that are in a place of worship and contract the virus then go out to their place of work or to the grocery store or the convenience store or wherever and that’s how this is spread,” he said.
As of Saturday, Virginia, which has a population of 8.5 million people, has had 278,615 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 4,409 confirmed deaths since it began keeping records. According to the state’s department of health, 36,942 infections were associated with outbreaks.
Amber Athey, an opinion columnist with The Spectator, criticized Northam for taking “a shot at churchgoers” and for “arrogantly explaining to Virginia residents how they are supposed to understand their relationship with God.”
“As many people of faith will tell you, the act of gathering is indeed a very important part of worship. Catholics believe, for example, that Jesus Christ is actually present during the Mass. For them, the Eucharist cannot be received during a Zoom call,” she wrote.
Athey quoted Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, as telling her, “Gov. Northam’s comments are a mixture of shameful ignorance and gross anti-religious bigotry. The worship of God has always had a public dimension. For Catholics, the physical reception of communion is central to the practice of our faith.”
During his speech, Northam also announced the new COVID-19 restrictions which will begin on Dec. 14 and will be in effect until at least Jan. 31, 2021, according to WHSV3.
The new restrictions include a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. and a universal mask requirement.
All social gatherings have been limited to 10 people, down from 25 people. However, “this does not apply to religious services, employment settings, or educational settings,” WHSV3 reported.
For churches, the limit is 25 people, according to Culpeper Star-Exponent.
Three churchgoers from Culpeper County filed a lawsuit against Northam’s coronavirus restrictions last week, according to NBC29, which said, “One of the plaintiffs is a nurse and an essential worker who says she feels church gatherings should be considered essential.”
One of the plaintiffs, Ronald Lee Young, is a pastor of Alum Spring Baptist in Culpeper. “Northam’s restrictions are reducing the number of people worshipping,” Young was quoted as saying. “He is taking away our freedom of assembly.”