Ralph Northam shouldn’t be allowed to ruin Easter for Christians, said a Virginia man upset about the Democratic governor’s coronavirus-related limitations on religious gatherings.
Northam, of blackface infamy, was sued on Monday in the Circuit Court of Russell County. Larry Hughes, a self-professed Christian and regular churchgoer, argued that Northam’s executive order barring gatherings of more than 10 people, religious gatherings included, “substantially interferes with [his] exercise of his Christian faith, and forces [him] to choose between fidelity to his religious belief and punishment […].”
Hughes said that the Executive Order 55 and the 10 person limit have a “chilling effect” on his religious liberty because he “will not know the number of participants that may be at a service until he arrives,” and “[e]ven the pastor of a church may fear numerical non-compliance and simply close the doors to avoid turning out participants during service if the number suddenly exceeds the permissible limit.”
The plaintiff notes that Executive Order 55 includes exceptions that do not apply to a religious gathering. The executive order:
All public and private in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals are prohibited. This includes parties, celebrations, religious, or other social events, whether they occur indoor or outdoor. This restriction does not apply:
a. To the operation of businesses not required to close to the public under Executive Order 53; or
b. To the gathering of family members living in the same residence.
Executive Order 53 lays out what is “essential“:
“EO 55, taken as a whole, and in relationship to EO 53, ignores the special status and protections afforded Virginians relative to their religious liberties recognizes, and more clearly amplified than in the United States Constitution,” the plaintiff argued. “Article 1, Section 16, of the Virginia Constitution clearly states that the way a person discharges their religion cannot be directed by force, nor shall he be restrained in his body.”
“Consequently, ‘reason and conviction’ are the only permissible tools available to the Commonwealth to persuade citizens from attending church services. Whether a church should shut their doors under the current circumstances is a matter which Article 1, Section 16, requires to be left to the leadership and congregation of the church, not executive fiat,” the lawsuit continued.
Hughes essentially argued that if certain secular activities are allowed to continue, provided that social distancing guidelines are adhered to, the church should be allowed to do the same. Citing the “importance of Easter within the Christian faith,” Hughes asked that a temporary restraining order be issued “until the merits of the case” can be heard. At a minimum, Hughes wants Northam’s 10 person limit not to be enforced on Easter Sunday.
“The Governor has been careful to preserve religious liberty while protecting public safety. None of the Governor’s Orders requires a place of worship to close or prevents public access, and EO 55 specifically permits people to ‘leave their residence for the purpose of’ ‘[t]raveling to and from one’s . . . place of worship,'” Herring argued. “Virginia’s official coronavirus website also identifies ways that people may continue to practice their faith, including collectively: ‘Attendees may travel to their place of worship, park in the parking lot, and listen to the religious message while remaining in their cars’ so long as there are ‘no more than 10 individuals leading the religious ceremony or functioning outside of the church in support of the religious ceremony.'”
According to Herring, Hughes’s challenge will fail.
“Neither EO 53 nor EO 55 prohibits petitioner from observing Easter or any other religious obligation—the only limitation is that he may not do so at an in-person gathering of more than ten people,” he said. “And that limitation is precisely the sort of neutral rule of general applicability that triggers (and comfortably survives) rational-basis review.”
In a sign of the times, Russell Circuit Court Judge Michael Moore will hear the case over the phone on Thursday, WAVY reported.
[Image via Win McNamee/Getty Images]
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]