Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is facing a legal battle over the First Amendment, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has stepped into the fight. Kevin Wilson, pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, was served a summons after he held a Palm Sunday service and was threatened with either jail time or a $2,500 fine should he do the same for Easter. The church filed a federal lawsuit against Northam, alleging discrimination. 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.
This isn’t the only case in which the DOJ is getting involved and siding with the church. “People bring those lawsuits, we’ll take a look at it at that time, and if we think it’s, you know, justified, we would take a position,” Attorney General William Barr said. “That’s what we’re doing now. We, you know, we’re looking carefully at the number of those rules that are being put into place.”
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 issued a summons and let him know to expect the same if he ignored the Coronavirus restrictions again for Easter.
According to the emergency regulations, the church wasn’t allowed to have more than ten people spaced six feet apart. While operating at about 5.46% of total capacity, it would have been easy for everyone to remain at least six feet apart. And that’s not taking into account how many of those 16 might have been from the same households who may have come to church in the same vehicle, clearly rendering a six-foot distance from each other out in public medically useless.
Still, when the police acted against the church, the state backed them up. The excuse: We have to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the willful defiance of these congregants is a threat to public health. 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 places of worship are not being targeted by restrictions so much as any large public gatherings. 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.