The Department of Justice is siding with a Virginia church in its lawsuit against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Pastor Kevin Wilson of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island could face jail time and a $2,500 fine for holding a Palm Sunday service with 16 people in the pews, which was a violation of the Northam's Order 55 limiting gatherings to 10 people or less.
Before the service, a local police officer entered the church. He gave no introduction and did not ask for the pastor. He abruptly said they could not have more than 10 people spaced six feet apart. Then after the service, two police officers entered the church in full mask and gloves and asked to speak with the pastor. They issued him a summons and informed him that if he had service on Easter, all attending would receive the same summons, according to the Liberty Counsel.
The pastor says the people were properly distanced in a building that holds 293 people.
The DOJ's statement of interest to the court said, "the church has 'set forth a strong case that the Orders … impermissibly interfered with the church's free exercise of religion.'"
"There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Indeed, 'individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis,'" the statement to the court continued.
Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing Wilson, accused Northam of discriminating against the church and violating the First Amendment.
"The discriminatory targeting of religious worship by limiting congregants to 10 people even with social distancing while allowing similar secular gatherings violates the First Amendment. Gov. Ralph Northam's targeting of religious worship is a blatant violation of the Bill of Rights," he said. "I am pleased that the US Department of Justice filed in support of our request for an injunction pending appeal. This discrimination must end."
As CBN News reported last month, Attorney General William Barr said that he believes there is a sufficient basis for social distancing rules that have been put in place, but that the restrictions must be applied evenly and not single out religious institutions.
"But even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers," Barr said in a statement. "Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity."
And one federal prosecutor told Fox News on Sunday that it's important for state and local governments to remember we do not abandon our freedoms due to a pandemic.
"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."