The U.S. Department of Justice has thrown its weight behind a Virginia church engaged in a legal battle against Gov. Ralph Northam’s coronavirus restrictions.
The DOJ filed a “statement of interest” on Sunday defending Lighthouse Fellowship Church, an evangelical Christian church on the state’s eastern shore accused of violating the Democratic governor’s stay-at-home order banning gatherings of over 10 people.
The department views the governor’s restrictions on in-person religious services as a potential violation of the First Amendment.
“The Commonwealth cannot treat religious gatherings less favorably than other similar, secular gatherings,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement.
The church’s lawsuit stems from a service that Lighthouse pastor Kevin Wilson held on April 5, Palm Sunday. Sixteen people attended the service in a sanctuary that seats over 200 people, according to the church’s lawyers. The church reportedly had congregants practice social distancing and had sanitation products on hand. At the end of the service, Chincoteague police issued Wilson a criminal citation and summons.
People who violate Northam’s restrictions face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Lighthouse sued for a preliminary injunction, but that request was denied by a district court on Friday.
The church is being represented by Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian law firm that is calling for churches to reopen across the country.
In its statement, the DOJ said it is not taking a position on the advisability of in-person gatherings, acknowledging that those standards will vary over time. But it pointed out that Northam’s executive orders allow groups over 10 to gather at “any non-retail business and an array of retail businesses, including liquor stores, dry cleaners and department stores.”
Eric Dreiband, who leads the DOJ’s civil rights division, said that exercising religion is “essential” for many people of faith, “especially during a crisis.”
“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,” Dreiband said.
Attorney General William Barr has tapped Dreiband to lead a nationwide review of state and local policies to “ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The review is part of a wider push within the Justice Department to involve itself in religious freedom lawsuits, even if the disputes are small and local. In its first two years, the Trump administration’s DOJ has submitted more amicus curiae briefs, also known as friend-of-the-court briefs, in religious liberty cases than the Obama and Bush administrations did during their first two years, according to an analysis by NBC News and Columbia Journalism Investigations. Trump’s DOJ has also filed briefs at lower-level courts faster than the previous two administrations.
The DOJ has stepped in to defend non-Christian houses of worship in cases involving land use. However, the majority of its statements of interest and friend-of-the-court briefs are in defense of conservative Christian positions on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project.
In weighing in to support churches that want to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic, the DOJ is taking a position that aligns most closely with the views of white evangelical Protestants, some of Trump’s most loyal religious supporters.
About one-third of white evangelicals support the idea of allowing churches and other religious organizations to hold in-person services, even in places where the government has issued stay-at-home orders, according to a Public Religion Research Institute report published mid-April. White evangelicals were more likely than other U.S. religious groups to support granting this religious exemption.