By Carol Vaughn —
A federal judge in Norfolk dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Chincoteague church against Gov. Ralph Northam.
The order, filed Jan. 27 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, detailed the ruling.
Lighthouse Fellowship Church filed a civil lawsuit on April 24, 2020, against Northam after its pastor, Kevin Wilson, was charged by Chincoteague police with violating executive orders barring gatherings of more than 10 people during the COVID-19 pandemic, after Wilson led a worship service attended by 16 people on April 5.
The violation is a class one misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The 50-page complaint filed in U. S. District Court alleged the executive orders violate rights under the First Amendment.
The church asked for a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction to stop enforcement against the church of executive orders issued by Northam prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people during the coronavirus pandemic.
The church was represented by attorneys from Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla., group, who argued Northam had not done enough to protect religious liberty during the pandemic.
After Lighthouse Fellowship filed the complaint, Virginia began a phased easing of COVID-19 related restrictions. Under Phase 3, gatherings of more than 25 were prohibited, but religious gatherings of more than 25 people were allowed if social distancing, masking, and sanitizing protocols were followed.
Under the most recent executive order, religious services are permitted to operate without numerical limits so long as those protocols are followed.
Northam’s legal team argued that the court lacked jurisdiction because Northam is immune from lawsuit under the Eleventh Amendment, and that the church “failed to state its claims adequately because the temporary gathering restrictions no longer apply to religious services.”
Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen in the order dismissing the lawsuit also denied the church’s request to amend its complaint if the court ruled in favor of Northam. Still, she said the church may make a separate motion for leave to amend it, including “an explanation of why such amendments are not futile or prejudicial to the defendant(s).”