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The US Department of Justice sided with a Virginia church in a legal dispute over whether stay-at-home orders unfairly discriminated against the church

Jessica Snouwaert   

The US Department of Justice sided with a Virginia church in a legal dispute over whether stay-at-home orders unfairly discriminated against the church
  • The US Department of Justice sided with a Virginia church in a legal dispute over whether stay-at-home orders unfairly discriminated against the church.
  • The DOJ wrote in a statement of interest that Virginia's stay-at-home orders had "impermissibly interfered with the church's free exercise of religion."
  • The case is one of many instances across the country of religious groups pushing back against stay-at-home orders and health protocols during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • A US district court judge reasoned that essential businesses need to permit gatherings over 10 to ensure workers' income while the church was unable to provide ample reasoning of why it required an in-person gathering of more than 10 people.
  • The church has appealed the ruling.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As states, cities, and towns around the US implemented social-distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, religious gatherings became a focal point of contention during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, an ongoing case in Virginia between a church and the state's governor is drawing attention, and the DOJ has weighed in and shown interest in the church's legal argument.

The Lighthouse Fellowship Church, a congregation in Chincoteague, Va., filed a lawsuit against the state's Gov. Ralph Northam after the church's pastor received a criminal citation for leading a service with more than 16 people, according to a report by The Hill.

The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest Sunday in agreement with the church, arguing the stay-at-home orders interfered with the church's free exercise of religion because the state permitted gatherings of more than 10 people in other non-religious settings such as shopping venues like liquor stores and dry cleaners, as well as certain business offices.

"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 wrote in the filing.

The church requested a temporary restraining order and an injunction to pause enforcement of the governor's policy, according to The Hill; however, U.S. District Judge Arenda Allen denied both Friday.

Allen reasoned that essential businesses need to permit gatherings over 10 to ensure workers' income while the church was unable to provide ample reasoning of why it required an in-person gathering of more than 10 people, according to The Hill.

The church's attorneys appealed the ruling to the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and requested the order be blocked until the appeal is met with a decision, The Hill reported.

Similar cases have also cropped up elsewhere.

Several weeks ago, three pastors sued California's governor and attorney general over restrictions on public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic after one pastor received fines for holding Palm Sunday services.

Other faith communities have also butted heads with authorities on the size of gatherings after New York Bill de Blasio tweeted controversial messages about people gathering for a Hasidic Rabbi's funeral in Brooklyn.

More clarity around the constitutionality of such stay-at-home measures may develop as these lawsuits reach their final decisions, however more cases are likely on the horizon.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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