Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is facing a legal battle over the First Amendment, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has stepped into the fight. Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island filed a federal lawsuit against Northam, alleging discrimination after Pastor Kevin Wilson was threatened by police for holding church service. The state, on the other hand, claims the churchgoers violated the Virginia Constitution by breaking the new rules of social distancing. Is the governor really singling out places of worship? The DOJ seems to think he is.
Public Service or Religious Persecution?
On April 5, Lighthouse Fellowship Church held a Palm Sunday service attended by 16 people – spread out in a 293-person sanctuary. However, as far as the police were concerned, this wasn’t enough social distancing. After the service, two officers wearing gloves and masks came in and asked to speak with the pastor. They told him that if he held another service for Easter that violated the emergency restrictions, he could face jail time or a $2,500 fine.
According to the emergency regulations, the church wasn’t allowed to have more than ten people spaced six feet apart. While six people over the limit, 16 is only 5.46% of the 293-person total capacity. In a sanctuary that size, 16 people would have no trouble staying at least six feet apart, and that’s without considering families. People who live in the same house and ride in the same car don’t have any medically valid reason to stay six feet apart from each other while out in public.
Still, when the police acted against the church, the state backed them up. But was this an act of public service – or religious persecution?
Good For Thee, But Not For Me?
The pastor is represented by Liberty Counsel, a non-profit that offers support for lawsuits to protect religious freedom. Mathew Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, claims Northam targeted the church specifically and violated the First Amendment.
Arguments have been made – successfully, in some cases – that closing churches doesn’t violate the First Amendment because the restrictions aim to stop all large public gatherings, not just church services. But as Staver pointed out in a statement, the governor’s own press conferences regularly violate the ten-person limit. Where’s the jail time or fine for him?
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider pointed out that “discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.” Not every government official agrees, but if Barr is one of those who does, it’s certainly a comfort to churchgoers and lovers of liberty nationwide.