Virginia Gov. Northam sued by pastor facing fine, jail for holding 16-person service

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A Virginia church filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam after police threatened the pastor with jail time or a $2,500 fine for violating the state's coronavirus closures.

Kevin Wilson, the pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, was served a summons for holding a Palm Sunday service on April 5 with 16 people spaced far apart from one another in a sanctuary that fits 293 people. Authorities said Wilson and the church violated the Virginia Constitution.

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That Sunday, a police officer entered the church and told a member "they could not have more than 10 people spaced six feet apart," the law firm states in the lawsuit, adding that the officer made "unprovoked hostile and threatening statements" to the members.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam answers a reporter's question during his press briefing inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Va., Friday, April 24, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam answers a reporter's question during his press briefing inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Va., Friday, April 24, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

After the service, two police officers reportedly entered the church with gloves and masks on and asked to speak with the pastor to issue a summons and inform him that if he held an Easter service the following Sunday he would get the same summons.

The church declined to comment to media on Monday and directed questions to the law firm representing Wilson.

Mat Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, which is representing the pastor, pointed out in a statement that Northam's own press conferences don't abide by the limit of 10-person gatherings.

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"Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which provides essential physical, emotional, and spiritual services to the community," Staver said in a statement to Fox News.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague, Va., is suing Gov. Ralph Northam over the right to hold services amid lockdown orders.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague, Va., is suing Gov. Ralph Northam over the right to hold services amid lockdown orders. (Google Maps)

He said while many other congregations around the country have switched to virtual services amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the same would not work for Lighthouse Fellowship Church.

"This church does not have Internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online," Staver added. "Even if it could go online, many of the people the church serves do not have Internet."

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Many of the members of Lighthouse Fellowship also don't have driver's licenses and are on government assistance. The church helps with bills and provides several ministries, such as counseling and blankets and prayer, which are especially needed in this time of national crisis, he said.

"We must balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people but picking an arbitrary number of 10 people for every church is not the answer,” Staver said.

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Liberty Counsel's lawsuit comes as several churches have been holding drive-in services and clashing with local and state officials over the legality of them.