- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2020

Vice President Mike Pence on Monday cheered the Justice Department for siding with a Virginia church that challenged Gov. Ralph Northam’s ban on in-person religious services of more than 10 people.

The Justice Department’s intervention with a statement of interest in support of the church is one of the first moves under Attorney General William Barr’s order for federal prosecutors to be on the lookout for coronavirus restrictions that infringe on religious freedom or other rights.

Mr. Pence commended the Justice Department “for acting quickly to protect prayer and worship during these unprecedented times.”

“We cannot experience an American Comeback if we stand idly by while the rights of the men and women of this great Country are infringed,” Mr. Pence tweeted.

The Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague, Virginia, filed a lawsuit last month against Mr. Northam after its pastor received a criminal citation for holding a Palm Sunday service for 16 people in the 225-seat sanctuary.

Violations of the governor’s stay-at-home order carry penalties of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Attorneys for the church said Mr. Northam’s order ran afoul of the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion because secular organizations, including liquor stores and law offices, can host gatherings with more than 10 people.

The Justice Department agreed.

“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,” said Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division.

Lawyers representing the Northam administration claimed the Lighthouse Fellowship and the Justice Department misconstrued the governor’s order.

Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens wrote in court filings that Mr. Northam’s executive order did not “operate in the manner the plaintiff and the federal government describe.”

The case is moving rapidly through the judicial system on course for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

A federal judge last week denied Lighthouse Fellowship Church’s request for the preliminary injunction and restraining order.

U.S. District Judge Arenda Allen questioned why Lighthouse Fellowship Church needed to hold worship services with more than 10 people and why it didn’t livestream services over the internet.

She also concluded that Mr. Northam’s exemption for various businesses was “essential to prevent joblessness at a time when people desperately need to retain their incomes and healthcare and at a time when unemployment is dramatically rising.”

Mr. Northam defended the policy at a press conference Monday.

“My decisions are made to protect Virginians, to keep Virginians healthy and safe and to prevent deaths. And I understand people have made sacrifices, I understand people are upset by our decisions, but I am not standing up here to punish people. I am standing up here representing 8.5 million Virginians and doing what is in the best interest of them to keep them safe, to get this health crises behind us and get our economy up and running again,” he said.

Charlotte Gomer, 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,” Ms. 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 and accused the governor of violating worshippers’ 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.

As the nation’s top cop, Mr. Barr has strongly advocated for restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic that do not violate protections on religious speech and economic rights. He has slammed some restrictions as draconian and last week called for a rollback of some protective measures.

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