DOJ supports Norfolk church injunction for services in underserved community

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FILE – In this Nov. 28, 2018, file photo, the Department of Justice seal is seen in Washington, D.C. An internet firm is ending the automated registration of website names that include words or phrases related to the COVID-19 pandemic, in an attempt to combat coronavirus-related fraud. Los Angeles-based Namecheap Inc. made the pledge after a federal judge in Texas on Sunday, March 22, 2020, ordered the takedown of a website the U.S. Department of Justice accused of stealing credit card information while offering fake coronavirus vaccine kits. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. (WAVY) — The U.S. Department of Justice issued a press release on Sunday in conjunction with a Statement of Interest supporting the recent Lighthouse Fellowship Church Injunction against Governor Ralph Northam.

“The Statement of Interest is concerning the First Amendment’s freedom of religion in support of Lighthouse Fellowship Church (Lighthouse), a congregation in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, that serves, among others, recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes,” according to DOJ officials.

The filing comes after the Lighthouse Fellowship Church held a service on April 5 for 16 people in a space rated for 293. The service attendees were sitting far enough apart that social distancing guidelines were being adhered to.

Following the service, the police served a summons to Pastor Wilson.

The summons was given because Wilson and his service violated Northam’s Executive Order Fifty-Five which holds a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

On Friday, April 24, Lighthouse Fellowship Church filed a temporary restriction order in federal district court in Norfolk which was denied May 1.

On Saturday, May 2, “Liberty Counsel obtained an injunction pending appeal with a unanimous 3-0 decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Kentucky case of Maryville Baptist Church,” according to the church. 

Then on Sunday, May 3 the DOJ filed a Statement of Interest in support of the church. Shortly after, they released an official press statement to acknowledge the significance of the SOI and Injunction.

The Statement of Interest says that “the Court denied that motion without a hearing, without any briefing from the Commonwealth and without Lighthouse having the opportunity to reply to any justifications offered.”

“As important as it is that we stay safe during these challenging times, it is also important for states to remember that we do not abandon all of our freedoms in times of emergency,” said Matthew Schneider, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not.” 

Schneider is working with Assistant Attorney General Dreiband on overseeing the Justice Department’s efforts of monitoring policies relating to the pandemic.

He continued, “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.”

“For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband 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.”


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