Two weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he’d instructed Department of Justice attorneys to look carefully at coronavirus lockdown restrictions around the country, insisting that the DOJ would take action against state and local leaders who went too far in infringing on the public’s constitutional rights. This week, the DOJ took its first action in that regard, filing a brief in support of a Virginia church that is suing Gov. Ralph Northam for violating their right to worship in peace.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church is suing the governor after police cracked down on an April 5 worship service that saw 16 people in attendance. Police on Chincoteague Island threatened the pastor with jail time or a $2,500 fine for violating the state’s coronavirus shutdown restrictions, insisting that he’d put the community in danger with his willful disregard for the state’s social distancing restrictions.
However, the pastor and his attorneys at the Liberty Counsel say that it is the state of Virginia that went too far. And in a statement of interest to the court, the DOJ agreed.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has offered no good reason for refusing to trust congregants who promise to use care in worship in the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and other workers to do the same,” the DOJ said.
In a statement to the public, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider reminded state leaders that the Constitution was not suspended, even in a public health crisis.
“As important as it is that we stay safe during these challenging times, it is also important for states to remember that we do not abandon all of our freedoms in times of emergency,” Schneider said. “Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”
Virginia state officials will have to prove in court that they treated Lighthouse Fellowship Church no differently than any other business or organization…and that’s going to be tough for them to do. Surely there are businesses open in the commonwealth that have at least 16 employees still reporting for work. And if that’s the case, then Virginia attorneys are going to have to explain why 16 people can work in a business but they can’t gather in a properly-social-distanced church sanctuary. Good luck with that argument.