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Tipsheet

Justice Department Sides With Virginia Church Facing Fines, Jail Time for Holding Services

AP Photo/Mark Thiessen

The Justice Department is siding with a Virginia pastor who was threatened with a $2,500 fine and jail time for holding a church service on Palm Sunday.

Virginia officials served Pastor Kevin Wilson with a summons for violating Gov. Ralph Northam's statewide lockdown restrictions. Police threatened Wilson with a fine and jail time for holding a small, 16-person church service on Palm Sunday. The 16 parishioners were spaced far apart in the church, which has a capacity of 293 people, Fox News reported

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Lighthouse Fellowship Church is suing Gov. Northam, accusing the governor of violating the church's First Amendment rights. In a decision filed on Sunday, the Justice Department is siding with the church's request for an injunction while a preliminary ruling against the church is appealed. 

"This case, as set forth in detail below, involves important questions of how to balance the deference owed to public officials in addressing a pandemic threatening the health and safety of the public with fundamental constitutional rights," the decision reads. 

The Justice Department argues the church's allegations have not yet been addressed by the State of Virginia.   

"The Commonwealth has not yet responded to Plaintiff’s allegations that it permits non-retail businesses, such as law or accounting offices, to gather in numbers greater than ten so long as they use social distancing," the decision notes. "Likewise, the Commonwealth has not yet responded to Plaintiff’s allegations that various comparable secular gatherings are permitted."

States have issued restrictive orders in the name of slowing the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. Questions regarding civil liberties and the ability of states to ignore constitutional protections during a pandemic will likely be considered by the courts in the months and years to come. 

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Attorney General Bill Barr has previously said the Justice Department will side with citizens in some court cases, drawing a comparison from stay-at-home orders to "house arrests" and acknowledging the "unprecedented burdens on civil liberties" during the unprecedented pandemic. 

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