VA Church Argues Against Governor’s COVID Orders

Jul 6, 2021

RICHMOND, VA – Lighthouse Fellowship Church has filed its reply 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. 

Since Governor Ralph Northam lifted the restrictions on all capacity limits in public indoor venues on May 28, there is nothing that prevents him from reinstating those at any time. In his reply brief, the governor cites his most recent executive order that all restrictions concerning gatherings have been removed and the case is moot. However, Governor Northam specifically declines to state that it is “absolutely clear” that he will not reinstate his restrictions. In fact, the governor claims “there is no indication” that he would reinstate his prior restrictions but has expressly reserved and pursued the right to do so. 

The U.S. Supreme Court disagrees with Governor Northam. For example, in Tandon v. Newsom, the High Court stated that “even if the government withdraws or modifies a COVID restriction in the course of litigation, that does not necessarily moot the case” and “officials with a track record of moving the goalposts retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictions at any time…The Governor’s retention of authority to reinstate his restrictions negates mootness – despite temporarily modifying or suspending his unconstitutional regime. Litigants entitled to injunctive relief from unconstitutional restrictions on their cherished constitutional freedoms remain entitled to such relief where the applicants remain under a constant threat that government officials will use their power to reinstate the challenged restrictions.”   

In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, the High Court stated, “officials with a track record of moving the goalposts retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictions at any time.” 

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. In fact, since 1908, the 11th Amendment states governors are not immune if the lawsuit is asking for an injunction. 

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. 

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 of 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.  

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Governor Ralph Northam’s worship restrictions are 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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