Court denies local church’s 2nd injunction request over COVID-19 worship restrictions

Accomack County

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WAVY) — A federal judge has again denied a Chincoteague church’s request for an injunction in response to Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions banning in-person religious services during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit was originally filed in federal court when Northam banned in-person religious services completely. Now, under phase 1 reopening guidelines, drive-in and worship services at 50-percent capacity are permitted.

On Thursday, the federal district court denied the church’s request for an injunction pending appeal of the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a news release Friday.

On Friday, April 24, Lighthouse Fellowship Church filed a temporary restraining order asking the court to prevent Northam and “his designees” from “unconstitutionally enforcing and applying the various” executive orders against the church.

That request was denied May 1, which is the basis for the appeal.

The lawsuit was filed after Lighthouse Fellowship Church held a service on April 5 for 16 people in a space rated for 293. Police served a summons to Pastor Wilson following the service. The summons was given because Wilson and his service allegedly violated Northam’s Executive Order 55, which holds a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

On May 3, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest supporting Lifehouse Fellowship Church’s emergency request for an injunction pending an appeal of the district court’s May 1 denial.

The Department of Justice said it is trying to protect religious liberties during the pandemic by supporting Lifehouse Fellowship Church, which serves, among others, recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes.

“Our First Amendment right to freely exercise religion does not disappear during a pandemic,” said U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger. “Public safety is critical while COVID-19 remains with us, but we must also preserve our fundamental liberties.

The Department of Justice is “assessing its options with regard to participating” in the church’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Also on Friday, President Donald Trump declared churches as “essential” and called on governors across the nation to let them reopen this weekend. Many states are still operating under coronavirus restrictions.

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of all people in our country to exercise their religion freely and without undue restrictions imposed by government,” said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband. “As President Trump again reminded us earlier today, houses of worship are essential to people of faith, and those people include the recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes who allege that the Commonwealth of Virginia is unlawfully denying their ability to exercise right religion.”

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