DOJ Sides With Church Suing Gov. Ralph Northam For Targeting Pastor With Fine Or Jail Time

Written by K. Walker on May 4, 2020

Attorney General Bill Barr had promised faith leaders that the Justice Department would have their back if they were unfairly targetted during coronavirus lockdowns. The DOJ is delivering on that.

This isn’t the first time that the DOJ has sided with a church in a dispute about overzealous and discriminatory enforcement of lockdown orders.

We have seen that there were many instances of state and local governments using the pandemic lockdowns to target religious organizations–specifically churches.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio was one of the most vehement as he threatened to permanently shut down “churches or synagogues” that opened during the lockdown. What a ridiculous attempt at overreach form a petty wannabe dictator!

This is the kind of thing that churches and synagogues were facing.

AG Barr had assured faith leaders that they would have the backing of the feds if they faced undue harassment by state and local authorities in the enforcement of lockdown orders.

This case that the DOJ has decided to back is an interesting one and raises a lot of questions. In this case, Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Virginia held a 16-person Palm Sunday service in a 225-seat sanctuary. The attendees were seated far apart from each other in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

The state of Virginia sent officers in protective gear to issue a summons to Pastor Kevin Wilson alleging that Wilson and the church violated the Virginia Constitution by breaking the state-imposed social distancing order put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Wilson was facing jail time or a $2,500 fine for the violation.

In the statement of interest released by the DOJ, the reasoning for the feds backing the church was made crystal clear, “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 statement later notes that Gov. Northam’s orders have been inconsistent, but have targeted religious gatherings specifically, “Over the last two months, the governor has issued a series of Executive Orders prohibiting religious gatherings of more than ten people, while permitting secular gatherings of more than ten people to occur under an array of circumstances.”

Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, representing the pastor, accused Northam, a Democrat, of discriminating against the church and violating the First Amendment.

“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,” Matthew Schneider, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in a statement. “Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”

Across the country, law enforcement has been cracking down on religious congregations, threatening heavy summons and fines for deliberately breaking state rules. Churches have been urged to switch to virtual services in lieu of in-person sermons, but Wilson’s church claimed the Lighthouse Fellowship did not have the capacity to do that and many parishioners didn’t have access to the Internet.

Source: Fox News

Why is it that liquor stores and big-box chain stores can open up but a church is being punished for a 16-person gathering on Palm Sunday? Great question. That’s precisely what the DOJ wants an answer to.

The DOJ statement lays out its case that the State of Virginia has imposed “a greater restriction on religious gatherings than similar secular gatherings” without a valid reason to do so. This is a direct violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

For the reasons set forth below, 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 ten individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than ten—even with social distancing measures and other precautions—has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion. Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means, this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the Orders may not be enforced against the church. This proof simply has not occurred because the Commonwealth has not yet submitted any argument or evidence in this case.

This is not to say that the Commonwealth must necessarily permit live, indoor church gatherings. As discussed below, there are good reasons to discourage gatherings of more than ten people and to encourage people to stay home whenever possible. But the Free Exercise Clause generally mandates that restrictions on gatherings be applied equally. Thus, an order purportedly aimed at promoting social distancing cannot impose a greater restriction on religious gatherings than similar secular gatherings absent the most compelling, narrowly tailored reasons. It will be difficult for the Commonwealth to justify having one set of rules that allows for secular gatherings—such as in-person operations for any non-retail business and various other exemptions permitting large-scale retail gatherings—while denying to Lighthouse the ability to worship in modest numbers with appropriate social distancing and sanitizing precautions.

Source: DOJ

The DOJ’s argument is three-fold and very briefly summed up here:

  1. Constitutional Rights Are Preserved During a Public Health Crisis
    • There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
  2. The Free Exercise Clause Prohibits Unequal Treatment of Religious Individuals and Organizations
    • A law or rule is not neutral if it singles out particular religious conduct for adverse treatment.
    • The Court must ensure that like things are treated as like, and that religious gatherings are not singled out for unequal treatment.
  3. The Compelling Interest / Least Restrictive Means Test Is a Searching Inquiry
    • To satisfy the commands of the First Amendment, a law restrictive of religious practice must advance “‘interests of the highest order’” and must be narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests.

The would-be COVID tyrants in state and local governments that want to use the pandemic as an excuse to target religious groups that they are already hostile to are going to get some pushback from the DOJ.

That’s what the DOJ should be there for–to protect Americans from overreaching governments.

So much better than the DOJ under Obama, eh?


ClashDaily's Associate Editor since August 2016. Self-described political junkie, anti-Third Wave Feminist, and a nightmare to the 'intersectional' crowd. Mrs. Walker has taken a stand against 'white privilege' education in public schools. She's also an amateur Playwright, former Drama teacher, and staunch defender of the Oxford comma. Follow her humble musings on Twitter: @TheMrsKnowItAll and on Gettr @KarenWalker