News & Politics

'Discriminatory Targeting of Religious Worship Must End!' Trump DOJ Lays Down the Law on Ralph Northam

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

On Sunday, the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump stepped up to support a lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.), claiming that Northam’s coronavirus restrictions violate the First Amendment by singling out churches and other religious groups for more stringent rules than secular establishments.

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

Northam issued coronavirus executive orders to ban in-person religious services of more than 10 people while permitting similar gatherings of workers in non-retail businesses and many retail businesses, including liquor stores, dry cleaners, and department stores.

On April 5, 2020 — Palm Sunday — Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Va., held a sixteen-person worship service in its 225-seat sanctuary while maintaining social-distancing and personal hygiene protocols. Police monitored the service and issued a pastor a criminal citation and summons. The pastor faced penalties up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Lighthouse filed suit but on Friday, a district court denied the church’s request for preliminary relief. The district court claimed that “although businesses may not be essential, the exception crafted on their behalf is essential to prevent joblessness.”

Yet Lighthouse Fellowship Church also performs functions that are essential during a crisis. As Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing the church, explains, Lighthouse “helps keep people free of drug addiction, brokenness, mental illness, poverty, and prostitution. Many of the members do not have driver’s licenses and are dependent on the church family for rides to get food, supplies, and go to medical appointments and personal care services like haircuts.” The church has also helped members with electric or gas bills, rent, groceries, physical labor for moving and renovating houses, cooking meals, and more.

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The DOJ filed a Statement of Interest in the case, disagreeing with the district court ruling and claiming that Northam has not provided an answer to the charge that he singled out churches for special restrictions.

“The Commonwealth [of Virginia] has not yet responded to Plaintiff’s allegations that it permits non-retail businesses, such as law or accounting offices, to gather in numbers greater than ten so long as they use social distancing. Likewise, the Commonwealth has not yet responded to Plaintiff’s allegations that various comparable secular gatherings are permitted,” the DOJ statement reads.

“Based on the materials before the Court, [Lighthouse Fellowship Church] has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution that the Commonwealth’s executive orders have prohibited religious gatherings at places of worship, even with social distancing and personal hygiene protocols, while allowing comparable secular gatherings to proceed with social distancing,” the brief states.

The DOJ also notes that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted an injunction in a case raising similar issues on Saturday. The Sixth Circuit prevented Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.) from acting against Maryville Baptist Church after Beshear had issued mandatory household quarantine orders to parishioners who attended a drive-in church service. The Sixth Circuit concluded that the “Governor has offered no good reason so far for refusing to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same.”

“Similarly, here, the Commonwealth 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 DOJ brief explains.

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, celebrated the Trump DOJ’s support for the church’s religious freedom.

“The discriminatory targeting of religious worship by limiting congregants to 10 people even with social distancing while allowing similar secular gatherings violates the First Amendment. Gov. Ralph Northam’s targeting of religious worship is a blatant violation of the Bill of Rights,” Staver said in a statement. “I am pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice filed in support of our request for an injunction pending appeal. This discrimination must end.”

Governors like Northam do enjoy broader authority during a crisis, but they cannot single out religious worship for extra restrictions just because it is religious. The Lighthouse case is also instructive because the church — like so many others — provides essential services to its needy parishioners. Who is Northam to say that lawyers and laundromats can work with more than 10 people while churches cannot be trusted to follow social distancing?

Of course, Northam is the governor who signed a raft of lefty bills over Easter weekend in the middle of a crisis, apparently trying to hide just how radical these pieces of legislation are. He used the cover of Easter during a pandemic to tighten gun control, loosen abortion restrictions, remove protections for Confederate monuments, issue sweeping voting “reforms,” institute climate regulations based on the Green New Deal, raise the minimum wage, and prohibit “discrimination” on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This is the same Ralph Northam who condemned his Republican opponent as a horrific racist only to have a photo on old yearbook page surface — showing one man in blackface and another in a KKK hood.

Voters should remember Northam and his fellow Democrats across the country who trampled over religious freedom in the name of fighting the coronavirus. A crisis is no excuse for attacks on religious freedom.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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