Va. drops charges against pastor who held in-person worship service on Palm Sunday

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A Virginia pastor who was threatened with criminal punishment for holding an in-person worship service on Palm Sunday has had charges against him dropped.

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.

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

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However, an order was issued last week in the General District Court for the County of Accomack that officially ended further prosecution of the pastor over the 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 was representing Wilson, said in a statement on Tuesday

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

Earlier this year, states issued varying restrictions on in-person gatherings, including houses of worship, to help curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lighthouse Fellowship held a service for Palm Sunday with 16 attendees in their sanctuary, which had a seating capacity for over 250, while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Wilson was cited for holding the service, as the attendance was larger than the 10-person limit. In response, the pastor sued the state, claiming that the citation unjustly targeted his church.

“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 lawsuit.

“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, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case, arguing that the church had a “likelihood of success on the merits of its claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

“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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