REMEMBER the pastor of a storefront church in Chincoteague who was threatened with up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for holding services for 16 socially-distanced congregants on Palm Sunday?
The criminal charges against Pastor Kevin Wilson were quietly dropped on June 10 after the Accomack County commonwealth’s attorney admitted that “under the circumstances the interests of Justice are not served by the further prosecution of this violation.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office initially defended the criminal charges, claiming that allowing Wilson to minister to this tiny part of his flock at the Lighthouse Fellowship Church would “seriously undermine Virginia’s efforts to resist a once-in-a-century pandemic and threaten irreparable harm to an unknown (and unknowable) number of people.”
Dropping them was a tacit admission that Gov. Ralph Northam’s March 30 Executive Order 55 limiting religious gatherings to no more than 10 people was unenforceable after thousands of George Floyd protesters were seen violating the governor’s social distancing mandate.
“We are pleased these charges have now been dropped as we continue to uphold the church’s First Amendment right to exist and freely assemble,” Mat Staver, chairman of Florida-based Liberty Counsel which represented Wilson, said in a statement, adding that “these criminal charges reflect [Gov. Northam’s] blatant unconstitutional actions against Pastor Wilson.” Staver pointed out that even the governor’s own April 8 press conference on COVID-19 violated the 10-person limit.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable that the pastor would be charged for having six people over the 10 person limit,” he added. “At the same time, Gov. Northam significantly hurt his case by encouraging mass protests and limiting this church to a 10-person limit.”
Wilson had filed a federal lawsuit against Northam, claiming that because his church had room for 293 congregants, the 10-person limit was arbitrary and discriminatory because so-called “essential” commercial and non-religious entities, including liquor stores, warehouse clubs, and big box retailers, were not subject to the same rule. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights filed a brief on Wilson’s behalf, noting that “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
On May 26, a federal judge denied the church’s request for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to allow it to hold religious services for more than 10 worshippers. Liberty Counsel then filed an appeal with the 4th Circuit on June 29, accusing Northam of violating the church’s First Amendment rights while pointing out the absurd contradictions in the governor’s COVID-19 executive orders:
“Lighthouse can serve food, provide overnight shelter, and give counseling to a group of hundreds in the same room together for hours or even days on end. But if Pastor Wilson offers a prayer, sings a hymn, and gives a sermon to the same people in the same room, Lighthouse’s activity becomes a banned religious gathering under the Governor’s Orders, subject to criminal penalty for exceeding the 10-person cap,” the appeal pointedly noted. “A more substantial infringement and burden on Lighthouse’s religious exercise is difficult to fathom.”
This debacle would be bad enough if Northam was not also a physician who must know that as far as transmission of COVID-19 is concerned, the virus makes absolutely no distinction between non-religious social services and worship happening in the same room in the same building.
It’s ironic that the commonwealth’s attempt to make an “example” of Pastor Wilson inadvertently exposed Northam’s own patently ridiculous—and blatantly unconstitutional—double standard.