On May 3, 2020, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest in the case of Lighthouse Christian Church v. Northam.
The federal case was filed by Lighthouse Christian Church in Chincoteague, Virginia. The church sued Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam after police served a summons upon its pastor for holding an in-person church service with 16 congregants on Palm Sunday. The State of Virginia contends that the service violated an executive order that temporarily banned in-person gatherings of more than 10 persons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Fox News, the 16 participants in the church service sat far apart, and the church building can accommodate up to 293 congregants under normal circumstances. Lighthouse Christian Church states that police made “unprovoked hostile and threatening statements” to its members and threatened its pastor with a $2,500 fine or jail time. The church contends that it does not have the capacity to hold online church services and that many of its congregants “[lack] driver’s licenses,” “are on government assistance,” and do not have internet access. Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, who represents the church, acknowledges that government “‘must balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people,’” but adds that “‘picking an arbitrary [limit] of 10 people for every church is not the answer.’”
In its court papers, the DOJ asserts that “‘the church has set forth a strong case that the [executive] orders, by exempting other activities permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than 10 — even with social distancing measures and other precautions — has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion.’”