More Nuance Needed In Church Lawsuit Over Virginia Governor’s Stay-At-Home Orders

May 7, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem

WASHINGTON – As state governments weigh their responses to the coronavirus pandemic, religious groups across America have voiced concerns that lockdown measures could infringe on their constitutional rights.

Last month, police broke up a gathering of 16 people at Lighthouse Fellowship Church, a small congregation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The church’s pastor received a criminal citation for violating the governor’s stay-at-home orders, which prohibited gatherings of over 10 people.

A conservative legal group called Liberty Council later filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Lighthouse against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. The complaint claims Northam violated the church’s religious freedom by interrupting the gathering. 

Lighthouse’s request for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order was denied by a District judge on May 1, but the lawsuit received national attention this week after the Department of Justice filed a letter of interest siding with the church.

“The United States has a substantial interest in the preservation of its citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion, expressly protected by the First Amendment,” the letter says.

The DOJ’s intervention in the lawsuit has been criticized by some legal experts who say it constitutes an unnecessary federal intervention in a highly sensitive political matter.

Michael Meyerson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Baltimore, says that while Lighthouse Fellowship’s lawsuit is “not a slam dunk case” it merits careful legal examination. 

“Leaving the DOJ aside, I think both the governor and the church have decent arguments on their side that are not extreme, not dangerous, and not hateful,” says Meyerson, who is the author of “Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America.”

Most constitutional experts agree that the First Amendment grants people the right to practice religion freely, but not without some restrictions. “You do not have the absolute right to exercise your religion any way you want to,” Meyerson explains.

A classic example of that, he says, is the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling that prohibiting Native Americans from using peyote — a hallucinogenic drug — is not a violation of their rights to free exercise of religion.

On the other hand, the government can never act in a discriminatory way — it can only impose restrictions on worshippers if those limitations also apply to non-religious people, according to Meyerson.

Lighthouse Fellowship’s complaint alleges that Governor Northam’s stay-at-home orders “unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of viewpoint” by prohibiting larger gatherings at places of worship while allowing them at some “essential” businesses.

In Meyerson’s opinion, that argument could be difficult to prove. “There is not a human being in the state of Virginia who would think that [Governor] Northam would shut down religious events because he did not like religion,” he says. “I would mortgage my house that there was no hostility to religion in this ban.”

The DOJ’s statement of interest in support of Lighthouse Fellowship states that “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.” But Meyerson says that statement isn’t true. “It’s not that there’s no exception, the question is what’s necessary,” he says. “It’s all about what’s really necessary and what’s practical.”

From the onset of the crisis, religious gatherings have unwittingly played a role in the spread of coronavirus. In Washington, D.C, some of the first known COVID-19 cases have been traced back to a gathering of around 500 worshippers at Christ Church in Georgetown.

Meyerson says the risk of the virus spreading at religious gatherings should be acknowledged, but concerns over religious freedom should also be taken seriously. “I don’t think it’s fair to paint religious people and their arguments as frivolous,” he says. “One could well argue that there’s no better time than a pandemic to be in a house of worship.”

In recent weeks, the arrests of religious leaders for violating stay-at-home orders has become a highly politicized topic, drawing attention from news outlets and political pundits across the nation. 

In March, a megachurch pastor in Florida was arrested for holding a service for 500 people without enforcing social distancing guidelines. Last week, a pastor in a Baton Rouge suburb was placed on house arrest after repeatedly violating shelter-in-place orders.

Meyerson says that when legal matters become too politicized, people lose sight of important legal nuances. “When you combine law, religion and politics, everything is seen through a partisan lens,” he says. “Each side is going to paint the other as extreme, and neither is.”

Meyerson says there’s a chance the Lighthouse lawsuit could rise to the Supreme Court, but he expects the Department of Justice will lose interest in the case as states begin to ease their coronavirus restrictions. 

In the meantime, he hopes that the polarization around the case will die down to make room for more nuanced legal opinions. “I hope this is not pitched as religious versus non-religious people or Democrats vs Republicans,” he says. “I hope these questions can be thought of in a way that’s much more sensitive to both public health and religious community.”

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