- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2020

The Justice Department late Sunday sided with a Virginia church suing Gov. Ralph Northam in what is believed to be the first legal action since Attorney General William P. Barr directed federal prosecutors to be on the lookout for state coronavirus restrictions that infringe upon religious and other freedoms.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, filed a lawsuit last week against Mr. Northam, a Democrat, after local police issued a criminal citation threatening its pastor with jail time or a $2,500 fine for holding a 16-person church service on Palm Sunday.

The church says police in protective gear served a summons to pastor Kevin Wilson for holding a service on April 5 with 16 people spread apart in a church that holds 225 people.

Virginia officials say Mr. Wilson violated the state’s restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The Justice Department says in its filing that Mr. Northam had banned in-person religious gatherings of more than 10 people, but he has allowed secular activities of more than 10 people if attendees practice social distancing.

“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 more than ten — even with social distancing measures and other precautions — has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” according to the filing.

A spokeswoman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring slammed the Justice Department’s involvement.

“Donald Trump and Bill Barr should focus on saving lives and ramping up testing, not teaming up with conservative activists to undermine effective public health measures that are slowing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives in Virginia and around the country,” Charlotte Gomer said.

The Liberty Counsel, a legal organization that advocates for religious liberty, is representing Mr. Wilson and the Lighthouse Fellowship Church.

Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, called Mr. Northam’s actions discriminatory, accusing the governor of violating worshipers’ constitutional rights.

“Gov. Ralph Northam’s targeting of religious worship is a blatant violation of the Bill of Rights. I am pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice filed in support of our request for an injunction pending appeal. This discrimination must end,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Barr last week ordered U.S. attorneys and the department’s Civil Rights Division to be on the lookout for coronavirus measures that violate religious, free speech or economic rights. The Virginia case is the first publicly announced action linked to that directive.

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