The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest (SOI) and issued a press release today in support of Liberty Counsel’s request for an injunction pending appeal regarding Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island.
Last Friday, the federal court in Norfolk denied Liberty Counsel’s request for a temporary restriction order against Gov. Ralph Norham’s orders banning religious services over 10 people. Liberty Counsel filed an immediate appeal, and on Saturday, filed in the lower court for an injunction pending appeal. On Sunday, the DOJ filed its SOI.
Pastor Kevin Wilson and Lighthouse Fellowship Church filed a federal lawsuit against Governor Ralph Northam for violating their religious freedom by targeting churchgoers on Palm Sunday. Police served a summons to Pastor Wilson for holding a church service for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that is rated for 293 people. The charge is violating Virginia Governor Northam’s COVID Order 55 with a penalty up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
The DOJ brief states, in part: “Plaintiff has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution that the Commonwealth’s executive orders have prohibited religious gatherings at places of worship, even with social distancing and personal hygiene protocols, while allowing comparable secular gatherings to proceed with social distancing.”
The DOJ SOI states that the church has “set forth a strong case that the Orders … impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion.”
The DOJ states “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the Bill of Rights. Indeed, ‘individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis.’”
On Saturday, Liberty Counsel obtained an injunction pending appeal with a unanimous 3-0 decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Kentucky case of Maryville Baptist Church.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The discriminatory targeting of religious worship by limiting congregants to 10 people even with social distancing while allowing similar secular gatherings violates the First Amendment. 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.”