DOJ sides with church suing Virginia Gov. Northam after pastor who held 16-person service faced fine, jail

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The Justice Department is siding with a Virginia church suing Gov. Ralph Northam after police threatened a pastor with jail time or a $2,500 fine for violating the state's coronavirus lockdown restrictions by holding a 16-person church service on Palm Sunday.

The DOJ decision came after police in protective garb served a summons to Kevin Wilson, the pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, for holding the service on April 5 with 16 people spaced far apart from one another in a church that could fit 293 people. State officials said Wilson and the church violated the Virginia Constitution by breaking state-imposed social distancing restrictions intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

VIRGINIA GOV. NORTHAM SUED BY PASTOR FACING FINE, JAIL FOR HOLDING 16-PERSON SERVICE

"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 DOJ said in a statement of interest obtained by Fox News on Sunday.

Mat Staver, the chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, representing the pastor, accused Northam, a Democrat, of discriminating against the church and violating the First Amendment.

"As important as it is that we stay safe during these challenging times, it is also important for states to remember that we do not abandon all of our freedoms in times of emergency," Matthew Schneider, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in a statement. "Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment, whether we are in a pandemic or not."

Across the country, law enforcement has been cracking down on religious congregations, threatening heavy summons and fines for deliberately breaking state rules. Churches have been urged to switch to virtual services in lieu of in-person sermons, but Wilson's church claimed the Lighthouse Fellowship did not have the capacity to do that and many parishioners didn't have access to the Internet.

Many Americans have started to grow restless with state lockdown restrictions, which have urged people not to go out unless of an emergency, or to obtain necessities such as groceries or medication. In addition, many businesses have suffered since they were forced to close.

Attorney General Bill Barr said in an interview last month that the DOJ, in some cases, would side with citizens and businesses suing states over coronavirus lockdown orders.

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"People bring those lawsuits, we'll take a look at it at that time, and if we think it's, you know, justified, we would take a position. That's what we're doing now. We, you know, we're looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place," Barr told Hugh Hewitt on April 21.

Fox News' Caleb Parke contributed to this report.