A Virginia church filed a federal lawsuit Friday against Gov. Ralph Northam, claiming that his statewide social distancing orders violated churchgoers’ rights to religious freedom.
The suit, filed by Lighthouse Fellowship Church, claims that before Palm Sunday service on April 5, a local police officer abruptly entered the church and said they could have no more than 10 people spaced six feet apart. After the service, two police officers entered the church in masks and gloves and asked to speak with the pastor, Kevin Wilson. They issued him a summons and informed him that if he had service on Easter, all attending would get the same summons.
Police served a summons to Wilson for holding a church service for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that accommodates 293 people. The charge violates Northam’s COVID Order 55, with a penalty up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal organization representing the pastor and church, said the governor “clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community.”
“This church does not have internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online,” Liberty Counsel founder and chair Mat Staver said in a statement. “Even if it could go online, many of the people the church serves do not have internet.”
Staver added that Wilson protected the health and safety of the 16 people who attended on Palm Sunday by requiring them to be spread far apart in the sanctuary.
“But 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.”