Claiming there is "no good reason for refusing to trust congregants," Attorney General Bill Barr's Dept. of Justice has filed a legal notice in federal court announcing it supports a Virginia church that violated Governor Ralph Northam's executive order banning in-person religious gatherings of more than 10 people. A U.S. Attorney suggests the order constitutes "unlawful discrimination."
The DOJ's intervention goes against specific warnings the CDC, President Donald Trump, the Coronavirus Task Force, and the Dept. of Health and Human Services have issued to reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic that to date has killed nearly 70,000 people in the U.S.
Barr has directed the U.S. Attorneys to specifically ensure religious rights are not affected during the pandemic, despite the fact that medical experts, the CDC, and even the White House warn gatherings of more than 10 people are dangerous to the public health.
On April 5 police issued a summons for the pastor of the Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Virginia's Chincoteague Island. The church reportedly held services for 16 people in a 225-seat chapel. The pastor allegedly faces "jail time or a $2,500 fine," according to Fox News. The church is represented by Liberty Counsel, a right wing Christian law firm that appears on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of anti-gay hate groups.
At a March White House press conference President Trump said, "avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people."
"The President's Coronavirus Guidelines for America," which appears on the White House website, also specifically says "avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people."
The CDC points to HHS guidance that advocates "virtual worship," and in guidance specific to Seattle and other areas hit hard by the pandemic, the CDC directed "Every Community and Faith-based Organization" to "Move faith-based and community gatherings of any size to video-accessible venues or postpone/cancel."
The Dept. of Justice is taking a far different stance.
“For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a DOJ statement.
“Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not,” Dreiband also says,
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has offered no good reason for refusing to trust congregants who promise to use care in worship in the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and other workers to do the same. The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to monitor any infringement of the Constitution and other civil liberties, and we will take additional appropriate action if and when necessary.”