A small church in Virginia has filed a lawsuit against the governor of the commonwealth, after a pastor received a summons for hosting a Palm Sunday service with 16 people. Lawyers for the pastor say the church serves poor people, many of whom live without internet, and that the state’s Stay at Home Order disproportionately impacts the poor, and churches that serve them.
Pastor Kevin Wilson of Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague, Virginia, faces up to one year in prison or up to $2,500 in fines for violating the state’s Stay at Home order. The order, which was issued on March 30, stated, among other things “All public and private in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals are prohibited.”
Wilson’s Palm Sunday service was held on April 5, after the state’s stay at home order was issued. During the service, a police officer came into the church, and informed the worshippers that "they could not have more than 10 people spaced six feet apart."
Per a lawsuit filed by Liberty Counsel, which is representing Wilson, police officers threatened to arrest anyone present at the service if they returned the following week for Easter services. Easter services were then canceled.
Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, told CNA that the church was unable to move services online as it lacked internet, and that many of the worshippers who attend services at Lighthouse also do not have access to the internet.
“Some of them are former drug addicts, that have come out of drug addiction; others are some people who have been in prostitution--not all of the people in the church, but some of them are from that background,” said Staver. “For some of those individuals, the church is the only family that they have and they rely upon the church for support.”
The church has a transportation ministry, where it brings worshipers to medical appointments, and provides assistance in applying for disability and other benefits. Many of its congregation do not have cars.
These are “things that you cannot do online,” said Staver.
The 16 people at Palm Sunday service were spaced out in the church’s sanctuary, which seats 293 people. Under Virginia’s Stay at Home order, the size of the building does not matter. Services cannot move outside as outdoor gatherings of more than 10 are similarly prohibited.
“The pastor is now facing a criminal charge for having six people over the governor’s magic number of 10,” said Staver. He said that the police were regularly patrolling churches to see if they were in violation of the Stay at Home order, which was how they discovered the 16 worshippers at Lighthouse. According to Staver, the church--and other churches in the area--are still monitored by police today to ensure that there are no more than 10 people present.
Staver told CNA he was particularly perturbed that Wilson faces jail time while businesses deemed “essential” in Virginia--which include hardware stores, abortion clinics, and liquor stores--regularly have more than 10 people in an enclosed area and do not face any sort of reprimand.
“When you put all those facts together, this (prohibition of more than 10 gathering) is so beyond the constitutional authority of the government, and it reeks with injustice,” said Staver.
“Frankly, I don’t think the government has the authority at all to limit the number of people at a church, other than zoning based upon how many people can fit in a particular building,” he added. “They don’t have the authority to tell people that the form of worship has to be online.”
Staver said that he believed churches would be willing to take steps to ensure the safety of their congregations, such as limiting the capacity of the building and requiring people to spread apart from each other, but they were not given the chance to do so under this policy.
Most public religious services were suspended following the outbreak of COVID-19 nationwide, and are just beginning to resume.
In the Diocese of Las Cruces, Bishop Peter Baldacchino was the first to announce that public celebration of Mass would return, albeit in line with the governor’s directives.
Baldacchino’s April 15 to his diocese letter noted that the state of New Mexico recently updated its Public Health Order, which no longer includes churches as “essential services.”
“I strongly disagree,” he said. “Sadly, the Governor is no longer exempting places of worship from the restrictions on ‘mass gatherings.’ It seems to me that while we run a daily count of the physical deaths we are overlooking those who are dead interiorly.”
To comply with the governor’s directive, guidelines issued to all priests limit attendance at Mass in church buildings to 5 people, including the celebrant, and insist that a minimum safe distance of six feet be observed and all seating sanitized after Mass ends.
Baldacchino also authorized priests to celebrate Mass outdoors, in compliance with state guidance on social distancing, and specifically recommended setting up an altar in the parish parking lot with parishioners remaining in their cars with an empty space between each vehicle.
Officials for Chincoteague Island, where Lighthouse Fellowship Church is located, were unable to tell CNA if there are any coronavirus cases on the island. The most recent press release from the town, dated April 15, said there were 19 cases identified on Virginia’s eastern shore.
Data from Virginia shows that there have been fewer than 150 confirmed coronavirus cases in Accomack County, where Chincoteague is located.