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The Justice Department is siding with a Virginia church in its challenge to a state shutdown order limiting the size of religious gatherings, claiming it violates constitutional guarantees of free expression.
Federal authorities filed notice Sunday of their support for the Lighthouse Fellowship Church in the resort town of Chincoteague Island after the pastor was cited last month by local police for hosting a service attended by 16 people – six more than allowed for such in-person gatherings during the coronavirus health emergency.
The church, whose congregants include recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes, has asserted that the restrictions ordered in March by Gov. Ralph Northam violate religious freedom.
Federal intervention follows a warning issued last week by Attorney General William Barr that the Justice Department was reviewing shutdown orders issued by the states to guard against overly-restrictive policies.
“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr wrote in a memo to federal prosecutors last week. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”
The DOJ’s weekend action marks the second time in as many months that the federal government has sided with a church in a dispute over in-person worship services. Last month, the government sided with a Mississippi church after congregants were cited by local police while attending a drive-in service.
DOJ sides with Mississippi church in COVID-19 challenge: Church accuses police of discrimination
In the Virginia case, the church pastor, Kevin Wilson was cited for violating the state order following an April 5 Palm Sunday service which drew 16 people to a sanctuary with more than 220 seats. The church has argued that the group followed appropriate social distancing and personal-hygiene protocols.
The church’s attorneys claimed that Northam’s order “clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community.”
“This church does not have internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online,” Matt Staver said when the church announced its lawsuit. “Pastor 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.”
Eric Dreiband, chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the religious expression is “essential, especially during a crisis.”
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has offered no good reason for refusing to trust congregants who promise to use care in worship in the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and other workers to do the same,” Dreiband said, warning that the department would “continue to monitor any infringement of the Constitution and other civil liberties, and we will take additional appropriate action if and when necessary.”
Charlotte Gomer, spokeswoman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said the federal intervention is unwelcome and unnecessary.
“Donald Trump and Bill Barr should focus on saving lives and ramping up testing, not teaming up with conservative activists to undermine effective public health measures that are slowing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives in Virginia and around the country,” Gomer said.
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