The United States Department of Justice (DOJ), under the leadership of Attorney General William Barr, is putting its support behind a Virginia church that faced punitive measures after a group of 16 joined for worship there — violating Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam’s orders that limit social gathering to ten people or fewer.
On Sunday, the DOJ issued a statement of interest to the federal court handling the case against Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague, Virginia.
“This case, as set forth in detail below, involves important questions of how to balance the deference owed to public officials in addressing a pandemic threatening the health and safety of the public with fundamental constitutional rights,” Barr wrote in the statement.
“If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court,” Barr wrote.
The United States believes that the church has set forth a strong case that the orders, by exempting other activities 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 DOJ statement points out that while dozens of people have been allowed to shop at businesses like Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and grocery stores, other gathering places like churches, libraries, and boutique shops have been deemed “nonessential” by Northam in the case of Virginia.
Vice President Mike Pence indicated on social media that he backs the DOJ’s support of the church:
We cannot experience an American Comeback if we stand idly by while the rights of the men and women of this great Country are infringed. Thank you the @TheJusticeDept for acting quickly to protect prayer and worship during these unprecedented times. https://t.co/0cR0Uh0v3I
— Mike Pence (@Mike_Pence) May 4, 2020
Politico reported on Virginia’s response to the DOJ move:
In a preliminary response Sunday night, Northam’s attorneys defended his orders and said they were being misconstrued by the Justice Department.
“Not all executive orders issued to address the threat of Covid-19 are the same, and those issued by Governor Northam do not operate in the manner Plaintiff and the Federal Government describe,” Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens wrote.
Heytens also quoted from the feds’ new filing and accused them of cherry-picking constitutional principles to apply in the case.
“Just as ‘there is no pandemic exception to the … Bill of Rights,’ there are likewise no exceptions to the Eleventh Amendment or the limitations of Article III,” Heytens wrote.
Norfolk-based and Barack Obama-appointed U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Allen denied the church’s request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on Friday, even before the state’s lawyers had responded to the lawsuit.
The judge claimed worshippers could still practice their faith in virtual settings.
“The Orders undoubtedly disrupt normal practice,” Allen wrote. “There is a global disruption of normal practice. An incidental disruption of normal practice does not convert the Governor’s broadly applicable Orders into a substantial burden on Plaintiff’s right to practice its religion.
“Although this may not be how Plaintiff wishes to practice its religion under ideal circumstances, these are not ideal circumstances,” Allen wrote.
“The church’s lawyers, who are with the Florida-based organization Liberty Counsel, appealed Allen’s ruling Friday to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals,” Politico reported. “They’ve also asked Allen to block Northam’s order as the appeal goes forward, something she seems unlikely to do given her earlier ruling.”
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