After the pastor of a Virginia church sued Gov. Ralph Northham (D-Va.) for issuing him a criminal summons on Palm Sunday for letting 16 people attend his service – six more than his 10-person religious gathering limit – Vice President Mike Pence is speaking out in support of the church.
Being represented by Liberty Counsel – which requested an injunction that is currently pending appeal – Pastor Kevin Wilson of Lighthouse Fellowship Church is also receiving the backing of the Trump administration's Department of Justice.
Administration stands behind church
Liberty Counsel reports that Pence "strongly agrees" with the DOJ's Statement of Interest (SOI) that it filed on May 3 in support of Wilson's church.
"Even in the midst of a national emergency, every American enjoys our cherished liberties – including the freedom of religion," Pence declared on Fox News Radio's The Brian Kilmeade Show.
According to the lawsuit, Pastor Wilson claims that Northam targeted his congregation and violated their religious freedom on Palm Sunday.
"Police served a summons to Pastor Wilson for holding a church service for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that is rated for 293 people," Liberty Counsel announced in a press release. "The charge is violating Virginia Governor Northam's COVID Order 55 – with a penalty [of] up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine."
After reviewing the case, the Justice Department is confident the governor unconstitutionally singled out church members by issuing them criminal summons.
"Plaintiff has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims 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 DOJ stated in its brief.
It contends that the Democratic governor clearly overstepped his authority by denying citizens the right to worship – even in the midst of a pandemic.
"[The church has] set forth a strong case that the Orders … impermissibly interfered with the church's free exercise of religion," the DOJ argued in its SOI before citing legal precedent from the lawsuit In re Abbott, 954 F.3d at 784. "[T]here is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Indeed, 'individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis.'"
Happy to have Pence aboard
Pence's support in the matter was gladly welcomed by Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver.
"I am pleased to see Vice President Mike Pence remind America of the importance of religious freedom," Staver states. "It is reassuring to have an administration that supports religious freedom."
He adds that the fact the DOJ filed in Liberty Counsel's case not only shows support for the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, but also recognition of "the constitutional violations in Virginia against houses of worship."