On Sunday, the Department of Justice took the side of a Virginia church that is suing Virginia Democrat Governor Ralph Northam because police threatened the church’s pastor with jail time or a substantial fine for holding a service on Palm Sunday that was attended by a mere 16 people.
On April 5, police served Kevin Wilson, the pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, a summons, despite the fact that the 16 people in attendance at the church that holds 293 people were observing social distancing guidelines. “State officials said Wilson and the church violated the Virginia Constitution by breaking state-imposed social distancing restrictions intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus,” Fox News reported.
Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, representing the pastor, accused Northam of discriminating against the church and violating the First Amendment.
The DOJ wrote:
The Commonwealth has not yet responded to Plaintiff’s allegations that it permits non-retail businesses, such as law or accounting offices, to gather in numbers greater than ten so long as they use social distancing. Likewise, the Commonwealth has not yet responded to Plaintiff’s allegations that various comparable secular gatherings are permitted … (It) 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. Because the Commonwealth has not yet filed any response, it has not satisfied its burden.
… Similarly, here, the Commonwealth has not explained why it differentiates and “refus[es] to trust” this small congregation’s worship activities that, as alleged, follow social distancing and personal hygiene protocols, while allowing and trusting non-retail businesses to gather more than ten people in such a fashion. As Plaintiff has made an initial showing that the Commonwealth’s executive orders treat religious organizations less favorably than similar secular organizations, and the Commonwealth has not yet carried its strict-scrutiny burden of justifying its differential treatment of religion, the Court should grant Plaintiff’s motion and grant an injunction pending appeal.
… Over the last two months, the governor has issued a series of Executive Orders prohibiting religious gatherings of more than ten people, while permitting secular gatherings of more than ten people to occur under an array of circumstances (collectively, the “Orders”). The Orders, however, permit various secular activities resulting in gatherings of more than ten people, so long as “to the extent possible, [they] adhere to social distancing recommendations, enhanced sanitizing practices on common surfaces, and other appropriate workplace guidance from state and federal authorities while in operation.
… For the reasons set forth below, the United States believes that the church has set forth a strong case that the Orders, by exempting other activities permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than ten—even with social distancing measures and other precautions—has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion. Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means, this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the Orders may not be enforced against the church.
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