The Trump administration has announced its support for another church under a governor’s order that infringes on religious freedom during the COVID-19 crisis.
The U.S. Department of Justice this week filed a statement of interest in support of a church in Virginia banned from holding in-person church services of 10 or more people. Governor Ralph Northam issued the executive order (along with an order that closed indoor gun ranges) in March.
Christian Headlines reported that Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, held a service for 16 people sitting six feet apart in a sanctuary with 225 seats. The government issued the church a criminal citation. The church filed a lawsuit. An excerpt:
The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest May 3 urging a Virginia federal court to issue an injunction favoring the church. It questions why Virginia carves out exceptions for liquor stores, home improvement stores, and dry cleaners but not churches.
“For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis,” said Eric Dreiband, the DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General 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.”
The church has a specialized ministry for the socioeconomically disadvantaged, including for recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes who “do not have the resources” to watch Internet services, the DOJ brief says.
From the Department of Justice’s brief (PDF):
“The United States has a substantial interest in the preservation of its citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion, expressly protected by the First Amendment. To that end, the United States regularly files statements of interest and amicus briefs on important issues of religious liberty in courts at every level, from trial courts to the Supreme Court of the United States. In addition, the Attorney General has issued comprehensive guidance interpreting religious-liberty protections available under the United States Constitution and federal law.”
The brief reiterates Attorney General William Barr’s statement to prosecutors that concern about the pandemic must be balanced with the U.S. Constitution.