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Justice Department sides with Virginia church in dispute over state's lockdown orders

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Washington — The Justice Department is siding with a Virginia church challenging Governor Ralph Northam's executive orders limiting in-person gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, which the church says unfairly applies to houses of worship and other religious institutions.

Federal prosecutors submitted the statement of interest in support of Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, on Sunday. The church filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging Northam's orders in federal court after its pastor received a citation and summons for holding a 16-person service in early April.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church maintains that its congregants followed social distancing guidelines in the 225-seat church and personal-hygiene protocols. The church argues the orders issued by Northam violate the First Amendment by improperly restricting religious gatherings at houses of worship while allowing comparable secular gatherings to continue unimpeded.

"The United States believes that the church has set forth a strong case that the 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," the Justice Department said in its filing. 

"Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means, this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the orders may not be enforced against the church," the department continued.

In its lawsuit, Lighthouse Fellowship Church argued that Northam's orders allow other businesses such as law or accounting firms to gather in groups of more than 10 as long as they follow social distancing measures. The church also noted large crowds at big-box retailers, as well as how social distancing guidelines have been successfully followed at Northam's own press conferences.

But on Friday, the court denied Lighthouse Fellowship Church's request to block enforcement of the orders. The church, which is represented by Liberty Counsel, appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Toby Heytens, Virginia's solicitor general, said in a filing Sunday the Justice Department and Lighthouse Fellowship "misconstrue the nature of Virginia's gathering ban in ways that materially impact their arguments."

"Not all executive orders issued to address the threat of COVID-19 are the same and those issued by Governor Northam do not operate in the manner plaintiff and the federal government describe," Heytens wrote.

The Justice Department's statement comes after Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to federal prosecutors to keep watch for state and local directives that could infringe upon constitutional rights and civil liberties, including measures that may discriminate against religious institutions.

"If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court," Barr wrote.

The Justice Department last month filed a statement of interest in support of a Greenville, Mississippi, church that sued the town over its stay-at-home order.

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