RICHMOND, Va. (Christian News Network) — Following a lawsuit from a church that was issued a summons for having 16 members in attendance at a Sunday service, as well as a letter from 200 pastors requesting that he make an allowance to assemble, the governor of Virginia has decided to exempt churches from the 10-person limit for in-person gatherings but with requirements and guidelines in place to ensure the safety of those in attendance.
As the Commonwealth enters phase one of its “Forward Virginia” reopening plan, as of May 15, in-person religious services will be among those activities that may resume.
The allowance comes with a number of requirements, including that attendance must be no more than half of the room’s lowest permissible occupancy, and members must stay six feet apart at all times, maintaining proper social distancing. Those of the same household may sit together.
Churchgoers are also encouraged to wearing face masks, and no items may be passed from person to person. The facility is to be disinfected before and after each service and signage is to be displayed advising that individuals who have a fever or display other symptoms of COVID-19 are not allowed inside.
Provided guidelines also suggest continuing to offer online and drive-in options, and to split up in-person services into multiple gatherings so as to keep the crowd size small. The government also urges postponing any choir performances at this time, as well as to make services shorter so as to avoid the need to use the restroom.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island had filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam last month after it was cited by local police for holding a service with 16 people. It argued that the 10-person limit is not a one-size-fits-all solution and noted that its attendees had exercised proper social distancing and hand hygiene.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sided with the church, filing a Statement of Interest in the case that outlined its belief that the assembly had a likelihood of success in the legal challenge as “the Commonwealth’s executive orders have prohibited religious gatherings at places of worship, even with social distancing and personal hygiene protocols, while allowing comparable secular gatherings to proceed with social distancing.”
“The United States … has a strong interest, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in ensuring the development and maintenance of the best possible public health strategies to combat the virus and protect the people of the United States from harm. But that interest must be balanced with constitutional liberties,” it wrote.
“This case raises issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion.”
The DOJ pointed to the legal standard requiring that the least restrictive means be used to further a significant government interest and expressed doubt that Northam could satisfy the burden of proof.
“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,” it stated.
According to reports, other churches also voiced their concerns to Northam’s office, with 200 pastors signing a letter to the governor that requested an adjustment to his 10-person limit.
“To be absolutely clear, the free exercise of religion through gathering together is a preexisting right, not granted by government, but recognized by government,” it read, according to Baptist Press. “This right should be protected by our Virginia state government, but at the moment, it is begin suspended by government.”
Some consequently expressed relief at the news that houses of worship would be permitted to reopen this weekend.
“Our main thing was, first off, we understood the seriousness of the pandemic, that our churches were autonomous but also responsible, and we really wanted to ask the governor to make sure to trust the people of his state and the churches of his state,” Brandon Pickett, associate executive director of the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia, told the outlet. “And especially with freedom of religion, that our churches could be free, safe and responsible all at the same time.”