Chincoteague Church Files Lawsuit Against Gov. Northam Over Gathering Ban

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By Carol Vaughn —

A Chincoteague church filed a complaint against Gov. Ralph Northam Friday in a Norfolk federal court.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church, in the 50-page complaint filed in U. S. District Court, asked for a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction to stop enforcement against the church of executive orders issued by Northam prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Chincoteague police issued the church’s pastor, Kevin Wilson, a summons for having 16 people at a worship service on April 5 in violation of the governor’s executive order.
The violation is a class one misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
“Because of the government threat of criminal sanction, Lighthouse was forced not to host services on Easter Sunday, its most treasured day in Christianity,” the complaint says.
The church is represented by attorneys from Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla., group.
The complaint cites actions in other states, including Kansas and Kentucky, where judges have issued a temporary restraining order against officials under similar circumstances.
The Kansas Supreme Court on April 11 upheld Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order limiting the size of church gatherings, but, according to the lawsuit, the U. S. District Court in Kansas on April 18 issued a temporary restraining order enjoining officials from enforcing the ban.
In the complaint, attorneys for Lighthouse Fellowship Church argue that religious activities are being targeted for more restrictions than comparable secular activities.
The complaint says businesses deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic have been permitted to continue operations with no limit on the number of people present inside, as long as they adhere to social distancing, enhanced sanitizing, and other measures.
“…Lighthouse respectfully submits that in an effort to uphold his sworn duties Governor Northam has stepped over a line the Constitution does not permit,” the complaint says.
The complaint goes on to say that at Northam’s press conferences during the pandemic, “even he does not abide by his 10-person limitation on ‘in-person gatherings.’”
It includes a photograph of one of the press conferences, along with photographs of big-box store parking lots with many vehicles, including a Lowe’s parking lot with 162 cars in the lot and a Walmart parking lot with 268 cars.
In the complaint, attorneys argue that other states’ governors, including Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb among others, have issued executive orders deeming religious groups essential and allowing them to meet provided they follow social distancing and hygiene practices.
Attorneys for the church sent a letter to Northam on April 22, demanding written confirmation by 5 p.m. the next day that the ban on religious gatherings over 10 was withdrawn, according to the complaint, which said no written response was received.
The complaint alleges the ban on gathering violates the church’s rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and peaceable assembly under the First Amendment, among other Constitutional rights.
The complaint can be viewed at http://lc.org/042420LighthouseFellowshipChurchVerifiedComplaint.pdf