VA Church Goes Back to Appeals Court

Feb 5, 2021

RICHMOND, VA – Lighthouse Fellowship Church has appealed for the second time to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the federal lawsuit against Governor Ralph Northam for violating its religious freedom by targeting churchgoers. Liberty Counsel represents the church on Chincoteague Island. 

Under the governor’s original unconstitutional orders, the church could hold meetings with an unlimited number of people to feed, shelter, and provide social services, but religious services were restricted to no more than 10 people. 

The Fourth Circuit previously denied the motion for preliminary injunction and sent it back to the district court. Then Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen dismissed the lawsuit by incorrectly ruling that the church could not sue the governor. Every other case in the country involving COVID Executive Orders include the respective governors as a defendant. 

Police served a summons last year to Pastor Kevin Wilson on Palm Sunday for holding a church service for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that is rated for 293 people. The charge was violating Virginia Governor Northam’s COVID Order 55 with a penalty up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. Yet, commercial establishments in the area were filled with people.  The Commonwealth of Virginia has since dropped the criminal charges against Pastor Wilson.

On April 5, before the service on Palm Sunday, a local police officer entered the church. He gave no introduction and did not ask for the pastor. Following the governor’s orders, 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 get the same summons.     

Lighthouse Fellowship Church helps keep people free of drug addiction, brokenness, mental illness, poverty, and prostitution. The church, which does not have internet, provides physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community. Many of the members do not have driver’s licenses and are dependent on the church family for rides to get food, supplies, and go to medical appointments and personal care services like haircuts. Many attendees are on limited income obtained from government assistance -- whether disability or social security, Medicare or Medicaid -- and the church has helped various members with electric or gas bills, rent, groceries, and physical labor. The church also offers a blanket ministry, prayer ministry, discipleship programs, and counseling services.  

The Supreme Court has unequivocally stated, “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943) (emphasis added). The Commonwealth of Virginia does not have the authority to dictate the manner or form of worship, whether that be online or a 10-person limit. 

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted an emergency petition for an injunction pending appeal on behalf of New York City synagogues and Roman Catholic churches in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and Agudath Israel v. Cuomo. As a result, churches in Colorado, New Jersey and Nevada have now received favorable court decisions regarding unconstitutional worship bans. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Governor Ralph Northam’s worship restrictions were unconstitutional, and the court must prevent him from reverting back to these restrictions at any whim. The governor clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church, which provides essential physical, emotional, and spiritual services to the community. Churches have a First Amendment right to exist, and the Supreme Court has ruled accordingly in favor of religious freedom.” 

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