Virginia Church Goes to Appeals Court

LIBERTY COUNSEL

Lighthouse Fellowship Church filed its opening brief to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the federal lawsuit against Governor Ralph Northam for violating its religious freedom by targeting churchgoers on Palm Sunday. Liberty Counsel represents the church on Chincoteague Island.

Under the orders, the church can hold meetings with an unlimited number of people to feed, shelter, and provide social services, but religious services are restricted to no more than 10 people. The 10-person restriction is still in effect.

Police served a summons to Pastor Kevin Wilson for holding a church service for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that is rated for 293 people. The charge is violating Virginia Governor Northam’s COVID Order 55 with a penalty up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. Yet, commercial establishments in the area were filled with people.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest and Vice President Mike Pence has publicly supported the church.

On April 5, before the service on Palm Sunday, a local police officer entered the church. He gave no introduction and did not ask for the pastor. Following the governor’s orders, he abruptly said they could not have more than 10 people spaced six feet apart. Then, after the service, two police officers entered the church in full mask and gloves and asked to speak with the pastor. They issued him a summons and informed him that if he had service on Easter, all attending would get the same summons.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church helps keep people free of drug addiction, brokenness, mental illness, poverty, and prostitution. The church, which does not have internet, provides physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community. 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. Many attendees are on limited income obtained from government assistance — whether disability or social security, Medicare or Medicaid — and the church has helped various members with electric or gas bills, rent, groceries, and physical labor. The church also offers a blanket ministry, prayer ministry, discipleship programs, and counseling services.

The Supreme Court has unequivocally stated, “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943) (emphasis added). The Commonwealth of Virginia does not have the authority to dictate the manner or form of worship, whether that be online or a 10-person limit.

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community. This church does not have internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online. Pastor Wilson protected the health and safety of the 16 people that attended on Palm Sunday by requiring them to be spread far apart in the sanctuary. But because the church had six more people than the governor’s arbitrary number of 10, the pastor is being criminally charged. Churches have a First Amendment right to exist, and the governor must release his heavy hand over them.


Used with the permission of Liberty Counsel.


Liberty Counsel is an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.