RICHMOND, Va. — An attempt by a Virginia church to prevent the state from barring gatherings of more than 10 people “would seriously undermine” the state’s efforts to deter the spread of the coronavirus, attorneys for Gov. Ralph Northam argued Thursday in a legal filing.
Attorney General Mark Herring’s office made the arguments in a memo filed in response to a federal lawsuit brought by Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Chincoteague.
The church sued after its pastor was issued a criminal citation for having 16 people at a Palm Sunday service that authorities said violated Northam’s order barring gatherings of more than 10 people.
The U.S. Department of Justice has sided with the church. In a court filing, the DOJ argued that Virginia “cannot treat religious gatherings less favourably than other similar, secular gatherings.”
Lawyers for the church have said that during the service, those who attended maintained social distancing and had extensive sanitizing of common surfaces. The church said attendees had to stay 2 metres apart and use hand sanitizer before entering.
In arguing against the injunction sought by the church, Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens wrote that the temporary restriction on in-person gatherings is a “good-faith, evidence-based” emergency measure.
“Such a ruling would seriously undermine Virginia’s efforts to resist a once-in-a-century pandemic and threaten irreparable harm to an unknown (and unknowable) number of people,” he wrote.
Heytens said Northam recognizes that the restrictions he’s imposed — including closing schools and nonessential businesses and issuing a stay-at-home order —”have been hard on all Virginians, including religious communities.”
“But Virginia’s restrictions do not operate in the way plaintiff and the Federal Government claim, nor has religion been singled out for unfair treatment,” Heytens wrote. He said Northam issued guidance designed to help religious leaders “find creative solutions,” including holding in-person worship services of 10 people or fewer, holding online services or hosting a service of any size as long as participants stay in their cars and observe social distancing.
The church argues that Northam violated their religious freedom.
In its statement of interest, the DOJ said the church has presented a strong case that the governor’s order on gatherings “impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion.”