A Virginia evangelical church is suing the state over a summons for holding services during the governor’s stay-at-home order, and the Justice Department is getting involved — on the side of the church.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide stay-at-home order in March that temporarily prohibited gatherings of over 10 people. But on April 5, Palm Sunday, Lighthouse Fellowship Services in Chincoteague Island held a service that reportedly had 16 attendee. And during the service police entered the church and issued Pastor Kevin Wilson a summons for violating the order, which carries a potential penalty of up to a year in jail or a $2,500 fine.
The evangelical Christian church wasn’t singled out; a report last month found that at least nine people in Virginia had been cited for violating Northam’s order, including four on Chincoteague Island and three in Northampton County, both on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In addition to Wilson, three organizers of an 18-person party at a closed restaurant on Chincoteague Island were cited, according to the Salisbury Daily Times.
The conservative Christian legal organization Liberty Counsel stepped in and sued Northam on behalf of Lighthouse. But over the weekend, they got a boost from the DOJ, which filed a “statement of interest” in the case, saying the federal government “has a substantial interest in the preservation of its citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion, expressly protected by the First Amendment."
This appears to be the first time the federal government has filed a statement of interest in a COVID-related lawsuit against a state, although it did something similar last month in support of a Mississippi church suing the city of Greenville, Alabama, over its coronavirus restrictions.
“The United States does not take a position in this Statement on the advisability of in-person gatherings in Virginia or in any of its localities at this time, as the proper response to the COVID-19 pandemic will vary over time depending on facts on the ground,” the statement of interest reads. “But the Commonwealth cannot treat religious gatherings less favorably than other similar, secular gatherings.”
Attorney General William Barr said last month that the DOJ could support lawsuits against states over social distancing restrictions.
“We’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place. And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them,” Barr told Hugh Hewitt. “And if they’re not and people bring lawsuits, we file statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs.”
The DOJ’s action comes as the White House is urging some states to reopen in order to kickstart the economy. On Sunday, during a virtual Fox News town hall, President Donald Trump specifically named Virginia as a state he thought should relax social distancing.
“Certain states are going to have to take a little more time in getting open and they’re doing that. Some states I think, frankly, aren’t going fast enough,” Trump said. “I mean, you have some states that, Virginia, they want to close down till the middle of June and a lot of things that they’re doing. I really believe you can go to parks, you can go to beaches.”
Cover: Attorney General William Barr speaks at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Officer Safety and Wellness Symposium on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.