‘Because the church had six more people than the 10 allowed by the governor, the pastor is being criminally charged…’
(Claire Russel, Liberty Headlines) A Virginia church filed a federal lawsuit on Friday against Gov. Ralph Northam, alleging the Democratic governor’s “unconstitutional” shelter-in-place order violated churchgoers’ right to worship freely.
The suit, filed by Lighthouse Fellowship Church, states that a Virginia police officer abruptly entered and interrupted the church’s Palm Sunday service, on April 5, and accused the churchgoers of violating the government’s social distancing requirements.
There were only 16 people in attendance, the lawsuit states, and each person stood at least six feet from the others.
After the service, two officers handed the church’s pastor, Kevin Wilson, a summons and charged him for violating Northam’s COVID Order 55, with a penalty up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500.
Lighthouse’s church members were also threatened with criminal sanctions, the lawsuit says. As a result, the church was forced to cancel its service on Easter, one of the holiest Christian holidays.
By enforcing a law that shut down the church, Northam “clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church, which provides essential physical, emotional, and spiritual services to the community,” said Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal organization representing Wilson and the church.
Unlike many other churches, Lighthouse Fellowship Church “does not have Internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online,” said Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman.
Although the church maintains a Facebook presence, it is located on the remote barrier island of Chincoteague, with fewer than 3,000 residents, meaning not all of its congregants have reliable online access.
Thus, Northam’s order did not just prevent churchgoers from physically meeting, it prevents them from worshiping at all, Staver explained.
Wilson is being punished because Northam chose an “arbitrary number” upon which to base his executive order, Staver said.
“Because the church had six more people than the 10 allowed by the governor, the pastor is being criminally charged,” Staver said.
“We must balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people but picking an arbitrary number of 10 people for every church is not the answer,” he added.