Virginia Churches Challenge COVID Rules as Infection Rate Grows

December 8, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
A church yard. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Members of two Virginia churches are trying again in a lawsuit filed on Friday to challenge the governor’s restrictions intended to control the spread of coronavirus.

The lawsuit says the restrictions Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced in mid-November “discourage the religious gathering of large groups of people.”

The lawsuit was filed in Madison County on behalf of members of Rappahannock County’s Slate Mills Church and Madison County’s Novum Baptist Church. 

Northam has said his actions are guided only by a desire to protect public health.

“We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” Northam said when he announced the restrictions on Nov. 13. “Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work.”

The governor’s order says, “All public and private in-person gatherings must be limited to 25 individuals, down from the current cap of 250 people. This includes outdoor and indoor settings.”

The provisions relevant to churches allow gatherings of more than 25 people, but only if all the attendees wear masks, they stay at least six feet apart, the seating is spaced for social distancing and anything used to distribute food and drink to them is used only once.

The lawsuit argues that Northam’s new restrictions violate an agreement between the churches and the state reached in September.

Before the lawsuit, Northam required a list of restrictions for church gatherings similar to the ones he announced in November.

Essential services were exempt from the restrictions. They included food banks, governmental agencies, the news media and schools.

After negotiations, Northam agreed to only one restriction for churches, namely the wearing of masks for their public gatherings.

A judge then dismissed the lawsuit on Sept. 23 after the agreement was finalized.

The lawsuit that was refiled last week accuses Northam of a double standard that violates the earlier agreement.

“The current suit simply asks that religious observances be treated equal to and as important as the exempt entities,” J. Michael Sharman, attorney for the churches, told The Well News.

He added, “The Governor’s current order, the Sixth Amended Executive Order 67, also makes an egregious error by exempting ‘Educational and Instructional gatherings’ but not recognizing that is exactly what religious observances are.”

The plaintiffs say Northam is demonstrating that he trusts workers to do their jobs “without any need for constraints, but he does not trust them to do so in religious settings and activities.”

It says people could sit together in restaurants but not in religious services under Northam’s order.

Slate Mills Church Pastor Brian Hermsmeier says in a news release that accompanied the lawsuit that “Virginia is known for supporting religious freedom” but is failing to uphold the reputation with Northam’s health restrictions.

Meanwhile, Virginia continues to suffer COVID-19 infections at a rate that matches the record pace growing almost daily nationwide. More than 3,000 new cases are being reported each day in Virginia.

The rate of positive tests for the disease hit 10.8% Friday in the state.

Northam said he is considering further restrictions.

A spokesperson for Northam did not return an email asking for comment.

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