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Justice Department backs pastor challenging Va. Gov. Northam's social distancing order

"There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights," the Justice Department said in court papers.
Image: Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference at the Governor's Mansion in Richmond on Feb. 2, 2019.Steve Helber / AP file

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is siding with a rural Virginia church that sued the state's governor after the pastor was charged with violating a social distancing order.

The government filed court papers Sunday in support of Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague on Virginia's eastern shore, which said the state improperly discriminated by insisting that the church permit no more than 10 people to attend services while allowing businesses to accommodate larger groups.

"The Commonwealth cannot treat religious gatherings less favorably than other similar secular gatherings," the Justice Department said in its submission.

While Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's stay-at-home order allows residents to attend religious services, it restricts the number of people who can congregate, while shopping malls, office spaces, law firms and other businesses are allowed to operate with no such limits.

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States have broad powers to protect public health, but the courts should step in when they go too far, the government said.

"There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights," the Justice Department said.

Police officers charged Pastor Kevin Wilson with violating the governor's order by allowing 16 people to attend a service on April 5. Lawyers for the church said those 16 people were separated by more than 6 feet in a sanctuary that can seat 225.

On Friday, a federal judge denied the church's motion for an order to block enforcement of Northam's order against religious gatherings, provided that they comply with social distancing and personal hygiene recommendations.

The judge said the state did not single out religious practices for discriminatory treatment. It prohibits "all social gatherings of more than ten individuals, secular and religious.”

This was the second time during the pandemic that the Justice Department has stepped into a lawsuit in support of a church.

Last month, it opposed a pandemic restriction in Greenville, Mississippi, after police issued tickets to people who stayed in their cars in a parking lot, with their windows rolled up, to listen to their pastor deliver a sermon on the radio. The city later relaxed its rule.

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Lighthouse Fellowship Church is asking the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take the case and to block the governor's order while considering whether to hear the appeal.

Over the weekend, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partly blocked enforcement of a similar order issued by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. The court said the state could not block worshippers from gathering in a church parking lot to listen to a sermon over a public address system. But it declined to block the restriction on gatherings inside houses of worship.