The DOJ filed a Statement of Interest in a Virginian federal court in regards to the state’s Gov. Northam executive orders that encroach on citizens’ First Amendment rights and their freedom to worship.
In the Department of Justice’s Statement, they focused on a Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island that supports its local community with a focus on “recovering addicts and former prostitutes.” The church’s pastor has recently opened a lawsuit against the Commonwealth and Governor Northam after he received summons for holding service during the state’s lockdown.
Pastor Kevin Wilson had held live services on Palm Sunday (April 5th) and there were only 16 individuals that spread out in a congregation facility that normally seats over 200. Wilson is facing a $2,500 fine and up to one year in prison.
Coupled with how outrageous it is that this church couldn’t serve such a small group of people in a safe way but we can still herd into Walmarts with the fact that Pastor Wilson’s congregation consists individuals most at risk for the mental impacts of a far reaching shutdown. JAMA Network has just published a new paper, Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019—A Perfect Storm, which claims that another driving factor of suicide is “decreased access to community and religious support”
“Many Americans attend various community or religious activities. Weekly attendance at religious services has been associated with a 5-fold lower suicide rate compared with those who do not attend. The effects of closing churches and community centers may further contribute to social isolation and hence suicide.”
As religious leaders are faced with difficult decisions on the best way to keep their worshippers safe and also providing for their religious needs, the DOJ is focused on whether any civil liberties have been violated by state and local policies during this Covid-19 outbreak.
As of Sunday, the Justice Department has sided with Pastor Wilson’s small church. From DOJ’s website:
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia’s governor issued executive orders that ban in-person religious services of more than 10 people while permitting such gatherings of workers in any non-retail business and an array of retail businesses, including liquor stores, dry cleaners and department stores. Violations of the orders allow for criminal charges and carry penalties of up to a year in a jail and a $2,500 fine.
…“For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “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 U.S. Department of Justice will continue to monitor any infringement of the Constitution and other civil liberties, and we will take additional appropriate action if and when necessary.”
“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,” said Matthew Schneider, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, who, with Assistant Attorney General Dreiband, is overseeing the Justice Department’s effort to monitor state and local policies relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.”
“The Commonwealth cannot treat religious gatherings less favorably than other similar, secular gatherings,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “As we stated in our filing, we do not take a position in this Statement on the advisability of in-person gatherings. Indeed, the proper response to the COVID-19 pandemic will vary over time, and will depend on facts on the ground.”
In its Statement of Interest, the United States explains that governments may take necessary and temporary measures to meet genuine emergencies, and that states and localities should be afforded substantial deference in their response to emergency situations such as the current pandemic. “But,” the Statement explains, “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.” Because the executive orders prohibit Lighthouse’s sixteen-person, socially distanced gathering in a 225-seat church but allow similar secular conduct, such as a gathering of 16 lawyers in a large law firm conference room, the governor’s executive orders may constitute a violation of the church’s constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion.
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