DOJ sides with church busted, cited by cops for having 16 people in 293-seat building
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WASHINGTON, D.C., May 4, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is supporting the case of Lighthouse Fellowship, a Protestant community in Chincoteague, Virginia, that was served a summons for holding worship services amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In a Statement of Interest filed on Sunday, the DOJ explained that governments are in a position to take necessary and temporary measures to meet genuine emergencies. However, “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, Lighthouse Fellowship had conducted a worship service with a congregation of 16 people practicing so-called social distancing in a facility that seats more than 200.
As reported by Liberty Counsel, which represents Lighthouse Fellowship in court, “a local police officer entered the church. He gave no introduction and did not ask for the pastor. He abruptly said they could not have more than 10 people spaced six feet apart.”
After the service, “two police officers entered the church in full mask and gloves and asked to speak with the pastor. They issued Pastor Wilson a summons and informed him that if he had service on Easter, and if more than ten people attended, everyone would receive the same summons.”
The DOJ compared the restrictions imposed on religious gatherings by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to those on many businesses.
“Because the executive orders prohibit Lighthouse’s sixteen-person, socially distanced gathering in a 225-seat church but allow similar secular conduct, such as a gathering of 16 lawyers in a large law firm conference room, the governor’s executive orders may constitute a violation of the church’s constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion,” the DOJ stated.
“The ultimate question for this Court, then, is whether the Commonwealth’s prohibition on in-person religious worship exceeding ten people to Lighthouse’s sixteen-person gathering—while exempting all non-retail businesses and others from the ten-person limit—furthers a compelling interest, and whether there is no less restrictive measure the Commonwealth could use to achieve that interest while allowing the church to hold its services,” the federal government’s Statement of Interest summarized.
“The Commonwealth cannot treat religious gatherings less favorably than other similar, secular gatherings,” explained G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
On April 24, Lighthouse Fellowship had filed a complaint against the governor.
Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel said at the time that Northam had “clearly discriminated” against the community “which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services.”
According to Staver, Lighthouse Fellowship “does not have internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online. Even if it could go online, many of the people the church serves do not have internet. 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. But because the church had six more people than the 10 allowed by the governor, the pastor is being criminally charged.”
After hearing of the federal government’s support in the case, Staver said he was “pleased” by the development. “This discrimination must end.”
The DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said, “For many people of faith, exercising religion 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,” he pointed out.
Matthew J. Schneider, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, who works closely together with Dreiband, added, “As important as it is that we stay safe during these challenging times, it is also important for states to remember that we do not abandon all of our freedoms in times of emergency.”
“Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”