By Carol Vaughn —
Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Monday filed an opening brief for the second time in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in its federal lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam, according to a press release from Liberty Counsel, the Orlando, Fla., group providing legal representation to the church.
“Governor Ralph Northam’s worship restrictions are unconstitutional, and the court must prevent him from reverting back to these restrictions at any whim. The governor clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church, which provides essential physical, emotional, and spiritual services to the community. Churches have a First Amendment right to exist, and the Supreme Court has ruled accordingly in favor of religious freedom,” said Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, in the release.
The church filed the lawsuit in April 2020, after religious services were restricted to no more than 10 people under an executive order Northam issued in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chincoteague police issued a summons to Pastor Kevin Wilson after the church held a worship service with 16 people in attendance on Palm Sunday in 2020.
The charges against Wilson since were dropped.
The appeals court previously denied the church’s motion for preliminary injunction and sent the case back to district court, where the judge had ruled the church’s claims against Northam were barred by the Eleventh Amendment.
In the 69-page brief filed Monday, the church’s attorneys argue Northam’s restrictions on religious services violated the First Amendment; that the governor is not immune from the claims; and that the district court’s decision should be reversed.
The church in the brief requested oral argument be permitted in the appeal, “because it would assist the Court in understanding and deciding the weighty constitutional issues presented by Governor Northam’s COVID-19 executive orders, which impose unique and unprecedented restrictions on Lighthouse’s rights to gather for religious worship in a time of uncertainty.”