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Lawsuit Seeks Church Exemption From ‘Stay-At-Home’ Order

Church organ
Church organ. (Photo: Joshua Morley/MarketingChange)

A southwest Virginia man is suing Governor Ralph Northam for the right to gather for church services, despite Northam’s orders to stay at home and limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people. A court hearing in the case is expected to take place Thursday by phone. 

The lawsuit, filed Monday, claims Executive Order 55 violates the Virginia Constitution and that it should be up to religious groups to decide for themselves how many parishioners should be allowed to gather. 

Shea Cook is an attorney for Larry Hughes, the 69-year-old man who filed the lawsuit. 

“It just seems inexplicable why you would have so many secular/commercial activities, whether they’re considered “essential” or not that are able to carry on their operations as long as they’re able to observe social distancing guidelines,” he said. 

Cook said while businesses like liquor stores and vape shops have to limit customers to 10, the order does not restrict the number of employees who can be working. 

“If you’re making an exception for those types of activities, why not make an exception for an activity that’s specifically mentioned and protected in the Virginia Constitution,” Cook said. 

The lawsuit references a section of the Virginia Constitution that “guarantees the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of individual conscience”.  

Cook said the lawsuit does not contest the executive order as a whole, but that churches should be exempt from it. 

Attorney General Mark Herring filed a brief in support of Northam on Tuesday.

“As a person of faith, the Governor recognized that the temporary gatherings restriction would be particularly hard on religious communities,” the brief said. “ But the orders challenged in this case neither require such communities to “shut their doors”, nor prevent in-person services. Instead, the Governor has issued guidance designed to help faith communities maintain their communion and worked with religious leaders to find creative solutions, including online and drive-in services.” 

Herring said the Governor has been careful to preserve religious liberty while protecting public safety. 

“Time and again, large gatherings have provided fertile ground for transmission of this deadly virus—and in-person religious services have not been spared,” he said.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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