CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. (WAVY) — A Chincoteague church has asked a federal court to grant a temporary restraining order against Gov. Ralph Northam, alleging his executive orders during COVID-19 preventing the church from gathering for worship are unconstitutional.
Gov. Ralph Northam has signed several executive orders since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Virginia. Some have closed schools, prevented some non-essential businesses from operating, and ordered Virginians to stay at home except for essential business.
The motion for a temporary restraining order — filed Friday, April 24 by Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague — asks the court to prevent Northam and “his designees” from “unconstitutionally enforcing and applying the various” executive orders against the church, according to documents filed in federal court.
In the motion, the church is critical of the order, saying it prevents them from gathering regardless of whether Lighthouse Fellowship Church meets or exceeds social distancing, enhanced sanitation, and hygiene guidelines, but still allows other commercial businesses — liquor stores, “big box” and “supercenter” stores — to operate under those same guidelines.
The motion also says police officers have imposed criminal sanctions against Lighthouse Fellowship Church for breaking the rules on gathering.
The church says the Chincoteague Police Department issued a criminal citation and summons to Pastor Kevin Wilson on April 5, 2020 in response to him holding a church service.
According to the Shore Daily News, an officer entered the church before the Palm Sunday service and said there could only be 10 people sitting 6 feet apart at the service. Later, when 16 worshipers were seated in the room “widely separated,” two officers entered and issued a criminal citation.
Virginia State Police have said they will give “education and warnings” under the state stay-at-home order. but persistent violation would be a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
“Absent emergency relief from this Court, Lighthouse, its pastor, and all members and/or attendees will suffer immediate and irreparable injury from the threat of criminal prosecution for the mere act of engaging in the free exercise of religion and going to church,” the motion reads.
The motion alleges the order against gatherings violates the church’s constitutional right to practice free speech and assemble under the First Amendment, as well as the amendment’s protections from disparate treatment by the government.
The motion also says Northam’s executive order targets religious entities because “unlimited non-religious gatherings at ‘non-essential’ retail businesses are permitted for employees and non-customer persons if distancing and hygiene guidelines are.”
Further, the church alleges the gathering order violates the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church’s counsel spoke to Fox News and said the church “does not have Internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online.”
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