The Department of Justice just issued a statement suggesting Virginia acted above and beyond its rightful call of COVID-19 government duty by closing churches to more than 10 people while allowing some private businesses to host untold numbers of shoppers.
It’s been a curiosity for some time — not to mention legal contortion of the Constitution — that Virginia’s Democrat governor, Ralph Northam, has been A-OK with Walmart, say, remaining open for all shoppers, so long as they social distance, but churches must go online.
How is it constitutionally proper to say that ABC liquor stores, retail giants like Target, even arts and crafts outlets like Michael’s, can remain open for business under social distancing guidelines — which, as any good department store shopper knows, have been regularly violated, impossible to impose — but churches can’t abide the same provisions and continue on-site services?
Churches have the First Amendment.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, challenged Northam’s COVID-19 orders in court after police threatened Pastor Kevin Wilson with jail and a $2,500 fine for allowing 16 people to sit inside church on Palm Sunday. The 16 sat at considerable distance; the church is large enough to accommodate 225.
That government would actually have the gall to oppose this church only shows how despotic the government has grown.
It’s a virus, for crying out loud.
The people are well-equipped with deciding for themselves how best to protect themselves.
But more than that, the idea of government picking which set of people can protect themselves versus which can’t — shoppers can; church-goers can’t — is a new level of overreach.
“Permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than 10 — even with social distancing measures and other precautions — has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” the Department of Justice wrote in a statement of interest filed on behalf of Lighthouse.
“Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means,” the DOJ continued, “this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the Orders may not be enforced against the church.”
Lawyers for Northam argued that the church was to blame — that the church misconstrued the order.
But that would mean a U.S. District Court judge misconstrued the government order, as well. On Friday, Judge Arenda Allen denied Lighthouse’s requests for a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order, saying church officials hadn’t proven why they couldn’t comply with Northam’s order and that businesses, in essence, were more “essential to prevent joblessness,” The Hill reported.
The fact is shuttering of churches at all due to the COVID-19 crisis is shaky constitutional business.
The right to freely worship is ingrained in America’s founding, underscored in America’s Constitution, a pillar of Americans’ God-given rights.
But Virginia’s Northam stretched even the limits of sensible COVID-19 restrictions and responses by setting churches as subservient to private businesses — and government.
That’s dangerous un-American territory.
The Justice Department, thankfully, is addressing this particular case.
And hopefully, the slap-down will reverberate across the nation and send the message to governors and localities everywhere: In America, the right to freely worship is sacrosanct.
Even in times of COVID-19.
Churches, take note. What are you waiting for? It’s time to open, and open wide.
• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter, @ckchumley. Listen to her podcast “Bold and Blunt” by clicking HERE. And never miss her column; subscribe to her newsletter by clicking HERE.