Virginia Defends Stay-Home Order in Church Suit U.S. Backs

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(Bloomberg) -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam defended his stay-at-home order against a Trump administration claim that the measure improperly restricts religious freedom in the state during the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal government is misinterpreting the details of the executive order as well as the reach of the state’s power during an emergency, the Democratic governor said in a filing late Thursday in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia. Lifting the order, as requested in a lawsuit filed by a local church and supported by the U.S. Justice Department, would put lives at risk, he said.

Virginia Defends Stay-Home Order in Church Suit U.S. Backs

Northam asked the court to deny the church’s request to block enforcement of the directive while the lawsuit is argued. The Justice Department, which isn’t a party to the suit, said in a so-called statement of interest on Sunday that “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” and urged the court to grant the church’s request.

But granting the request “would seriously undermine Virginia’s efforts to resist a once-in-a-century pandemic and threaten irreparable harm to an unknown (and unknowable) number of people,” the governor said in the filing. “Time and again, large gatherings -- including in-person religious services -- have provided fertile ground for transmitting this deadly virus.”

Trump Says ‘Liberate’

Similar complaints over social-distancing measures have met with some success in Kentucky and Illinois, while another suit over church services is pending in Wisconsin. President Donald Trump has supported a number of protests against such regulations, urging demonstrators to “liberate” their states. More than 75,000 Americans have died from the highly contagious virus in three months.

U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen will rule at any time on the injunction sought by Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Chincoteague Island, Virginia. The judge earlier denied the church’s request for a temporary restraining order. Lighthouse Fellowship has appealed.

The church sued in April to challenge a criminal summons it received for letting 16 people worship in a sanctuary that can hold 225 -- a violation of Northam’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. The directive also restricts the operations of most businesses.

“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 Justice Department said in its statement.

Good Faith

But Northam said his temporary ban on gatherings deserves deference from the court because it was made in good faith and was based on evidence. He also said the order doesn’t require places of worship to close, nor does it prevent public access to churches or block services “with a limited number of attendees.” The state said the church’s First Amendment claim in particular was doomed to fail because there’s no evidence the governor singled out religious organizations or political speech when he banned all gatherings.

The state’s argument “is a distinction without a difference,” the church’s lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said in an email. “The brief by Governor Northam does not change the reality of his orders that discriminate between secular and religious gatherings.”

The church and the Justice Department argued the executive order is fundamentally unfair because “religious gatherings of more than 10 individuals are prohibited, but large numbers of people may gather at liquor, warehouse and supercenter stores.”

There is a “value judgment inherent in providing exemptions for secular activities that impact the Commonwealth’s interests while not providing exemptions for plaintiff’s religious activities,” the U.S. said in its filing.

But that, the governor says, conflates his ban on gatherings with his separate provisions for businesses that are deemed essential. The fact that 10 or more people may be inside an essential business at any given time doesn’t mean it’s a gathering, he said.

A public interest group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued in a brief in support of the state on Thursday that U.S. Supreme Court rulings from the early 1990s hold that “neutral, generally applicable” laws don’t violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment if there’s no discriminatory intent.

“The virus is just as likely to spread at religious events as at nonreligious ones, so the order applies to all gatherings equally, regardless of motivation,” the group said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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