The Trump Department of Justice has sided with a small Virginia church in its effort to hold in-person church services for society’s disadvantaged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Va., was cited with a criminal citation April 5 for holding a 16-person church service, even though each attendee in the 225-seat sanctuary was sitting at least six feet apart and the church had sanitized the common surfaces and required everyone to use hand sanitizer, DOJ says.
An order from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam bans in-person gatherings of more than 10 people.
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.
“For ‘those members, Lighthouse is their only family and assembling with their church family is everything,’” the brief says.
Further, the church is a “small congregation without the resources or equipment to . . . conduct parking lot or drive-in services,” DOJ says.
The Department of Justice’s brief cites a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled a Kentucky church could hold drive-in services in the face of a government ban.
Virginia, the DOJ brief says, “has not explained why it differentiates and ‘refus[es] to trust’ this small congregation’s worship activities that, as alleged, follow social distancing and personal hygiene protocols, while allowing and trusting non-retail businesses to gather more than ten people in such a fashion.”
The court should issue an injunction allowing Lighthouse Fellowship Church to hold its service, DOJ says in the brief.
“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,” the brief says.
Photo courtesy: ©Sparrow Stock
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.