A U.S. District Court has dismissed a lawsuit by Chincoteague Lighthouse Fellowship Church against Governor Ralph Northam. In April 2020, the church sued over Northam’s Executive Orders 53 and 55, which limited gathering sizes to 10 and issued a stay-at-home order. But in a January 27 decision, Judge Arenda Wright Allen dismissed the suit, saying that the complaint was moot since those executive orders no longer stand.
The lawsuit came after Chincoteague authorities cited Pastor Kevin Wilson for holding a service with 16 people on Palm Sunday, according to The Christian Post. Earlier that day, police had warned church leaders of the ten-person limit. The charges were eventually dropped.
“On Sunday, April 5, 2020, a Town of Chincoteague Police Officer visited the Lighthouse Fellowship Church to inquire whether it planned to host a religious service that day,” court documents state. “The Officer informed a member of Lighthouse’s Board of Directors that it was not permitted to have more than ten people in attendance and that all attendees must be spaced six feet apart.”
The lawsuit argued that Northam’s executive orders violated several key protections, including the freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.
The case drew criticism from then-Vice President Mike Pence, who said, “The very idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia would sanction a church for having 16 people come to a Palm Sunday service when I think the church actually seats about 250 was just beyond the pale,” according to The Christian Post.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) also supported Lighthouse Fellowship Church. “The United States believes that the church has set forth a strong case that the Orders, by exempting other activities permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than ten—even with social distancing measures and other precautions – has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” the DOJ argued in a May 2020 brief.
But in her January decision, Allen wrote, “There is no ongoing violation of federal law in this case. The Orders on which Plaintiff bases its Complaint are no longer in effect. They have been replaced by Executive Orders 67 and 72, both of which permit religious organizations to host religious services that exceed the gathering limits imposed by the orders (25 and 10 people, respectively).”
Allen, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2011, said that deciding in favor of the plaintiffs would require her to say that Northam had violated the law in the past, a move outside the scope of her legal power.
“Granting the relief Plaintiff seeks would amount to a declaration that Governor Northam violated federal law in the past by enforcing or threatening to enforce Executive Orders 53 and 55,” she said.
She added that the plaintiffs improperly sued Northam instead of suing the commonwealth.
Although Executive Orders 53 and 55 are no longer in effect, other churches are suing over Northam’s current executive orders mandating safety precautions in churches. In December, lawyer Mike Sharman told The Virginia Star that the government has an unfair double standard.
“We trust schools, we don’t trust churches. We trust media, we don’t trust churches. We trust government, we don’t trust churches,” Sharman said.
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