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Under the direction of Attorney General Bill Barr, the Department of Justice sided with the Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, Va., in a lawsuit that was directed at Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, of blackface fame, according to Fox News.
The legal challenge was in response to Pastor Kevin Wilson being threatened with a $2,500 fine and jail time for holding a 16-person service on Palm Sunday.
Despite having just 16 people in a church that could hold 293 people, to insure proper distancing, officials said Wilson violated the Virginia Constitution by breaking state-imposed social distancing restrictions intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Fox News reported.
“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,” the DOJ said in a statement.
Northam’s solicitor general is reportedly defended his orders, claiming the Justice Department is misconstruing them.
“Not all executive orders issued to address the threat of Covid-19 are the same, and those issued by Governor Northam do not operate in the manner Plaintiff and the Federal Government describe,” Solicitor General Toby Heytens wrote in response to the Justice Department.
Wilson is represented by Mat Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, who charged that Northam is discriminating against the Lighthouse Fellowship Church, in violation of the First Amendment.
An opinion that Matthew Schneider, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, appears to agree with.
“As important as it is that we stay safe during these challenging times, it is also important for states to remember that we do not abandon all of our freedoms in times of emergency,” Schneider said in a statement. “Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”
Churches have come under fire for trying to work around restrictive guidelines put in place to mitigate COVID-19, resulting in fines, arrests and a number of legal actions.
Even drive-up services, where worshipers don’t get out of their vehicles, were being banned in some communities.
Barr addressed this last month during an interview with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, saying the DOJ is “looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place.”
“We filed a statement of interest in a case in Mississippi, where they were discriminating against religious practice and the putting restrictions on religion that they were not putting on commercial activities that had all the same features,” he said. “And we filed a statement of interest, and I understand that the government has pulled back from those restrictions at least to some degree so far.
“I issued a statement pointing out that whatever measures are placed against religion have to be placed against all comparable commercial and other activities,” Barr added. “You can’t single out religion for special burdens.”
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