The Justice Department on Sunday dipped its toe in another dispute between a church and government officials seeking to enforce public health orders for the pandemic.
The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in a case brought by a church in Virginia. Lighthouse Fellowship Church sued in federal court after facing criminal citations for holding a service that violated Virginia’s ban on 10-plus person gatherings.
As lockdown orders continue across the country, a growing number of religious organizations are fighting those ordinances in courts. Those churches so far have found a Justice Department willing to take their side over that of local or state officials.
In the Sunday filing, the Trump administration said that Virginia had not met its legal burden in explaining why it could treat religious organizations differently than certain businesses in its public health ordinance. According to the DOJ filing, Virginia is allowing gatherings of over 10 people for non-retail business like law firms or accounting offices.
“[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 ten individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than ten—even with social distancing measures and other precautions—has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion,” the Justice Department said.
Sunday’s filing marked the second time that the Justice Department sided with a church that was fighting a pandemic public health ordinance in court. The Department last month filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit brought by a Mississippi church, which sued city officials for shutting down its drive-in church services. Attorney General Bill Barr also issued a memo last week signaling that going after public ordinances that “overreach” would be a priority of the Justice Department during the pandemic.
Its involvement in the Virginia church case grew out of that initiative, the Justice Department said.
Lighthouse Fellowship was cited by local officials as violating the public health order after holding a 16-person service, where, according to the church’s filings in the case, “social distancing and personal hygiene protocols” were maintained.
The church, which is in Chincoteague Island, had failed to convince a U.S. district court in Eastern Virginia to halt enforcement of Virginia’s lockdown ordinance against the church. It is now appealing to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Read the DOJ filing below: