DOJ argues Virginia stay-at-home order interfered with church’s free exercise of religion

The Department of Justice is siding with a Virginia church that filed a lawsuit against the state over Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) stay-at-home order restricting in-person religious services to no more than 10 people amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

The Lighthouse Fellowship Church, a congregation in Chincoteague, Va., filed the suit after its pastor received a criminal citation for holding a church service with 16 people in attendance in early April. The church requested a temporary restraining order and an injunction to pause enforcement of the governor’s policy. 

On Sunday, lawyers from the Justice Department filed a statement of interest supporting the church’s action. The department argued that the church had a “strong case” because Northam’s executive order allowed other venues, such as liquor stores and law offices, to hold gatherings with more than 10 people. 

“Permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than 10 — even with social distancing measures and other precautions — has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” the Justice Department said in the filing. 

“Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means, this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the Orders may not be enforced against the church,” the department added.

Lawyers representing Northam filed a preliminary response on Sunday night. In it, they argued that the plaintiff and the Justice Department misconstrued the nature of the Virginia law. 

Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens wrote that Northam’s executive order did not “operate in the manner the plaintiff and the federal government describe” and noted that a court would benefit from a brief the governor plans to file related to the matter. 

U.S. District Judge Arenda Allen on Friday denied the church‘s request for a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order. Allen said in her ruling that an exception for 10-person gatherings for some businesses “is essential to prevent joblessness at a time when people desperately need to retain their incomes and healthcare, and at a time when unemployment is drastically rising.”

She also concluded that the Lighthouse Fellowship Church had not established why it could not hold church services with fewer than 10 people and use online services to reach a wider audience. 

Attorneys representing the church appealed the ruling to the Richmond, Va.-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to Politico. They also asked that the order be temporarily blocked while the appeal is considered. 

Attorney General William Barr has been vocal about ensuring state quarantine measures do not violate elements of the Constitution. The Justice Department’s move on Sunday came about a week after he directed federal prosecutors to “be on the lookout” for executive orders that infringe on protected religious, speech and economic rights.

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