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Circuit court dismisses church lawsuit against Va rules. COVID

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks during an unveiling ceremony for Rumors of War, a statue by artist Kehinde Wiley, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on December 10, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. |

A three-judge panel from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a church’s lawsuit against Virginia’s 2020 COVID-19 lockdown rules that restricted in-person worship, calling the case without object since the restrictions were lifted.

In one unanimous decision released on Tuesday, the panel concluded that since the specific lockdown orders in question put in place by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ended in June 2020 and the state of emergency for Virginia ended in July, the lawsuit brought by Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague is moot. .

Lighthouse Fellowship Church and Pastor Kevin Wilson sued Northam for the legality of executive orders that restricted in-person worship during pandemic lockdowns.

Judge Robert King, the author of the panel’s opinion, wrote that he believed “no live controversy exists” despite the church’s claims that the restrictions could still revert.

“[I]It is highly speculative to assert that Governor Northam will declare a new state of emergency in Virginia and reinstate restrictions on religious exercise that have not been in place for over a year, ”King wrote. .

“Lighthouse’s claim implies that in the absence of a change in Virginia law that would limit the governor’s emergency powers, this controversy remains ongoing. We decline to declare that such a change in Virginia law is necessary to eliminate this dispute. “

One specific issue in the case is an April 5, 2020 worship service attended by 16 people, which violated the state’s order limiting in-person religious gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

After the service, Wilson was cited by authorities and faced the possibility of a fine or even jail time. The state’s pursuit of religious service was condemned by then-vice president Mike Pence. The charges against Wilson were dropped in July 2020.

Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian nonprofit representing Lighthouse Church, issued a statement at the time denouncing the assembly restriction as a clear example of discrimination.

“Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church, which provides essential physical, emotional and spiritual services to the community,” said Staver.

“We need to balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and well-being of people, but picking an arbitrary number of 10 people for each church is not the answer.”

Obama-appointed U.S. District Court Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen ruled against Lighthouse in late January, finding the lawsuit moot and the governor immune from prosecution.

“There is no continuing violation of federal law in this matter. The orders on which the plaintiff is basing his complaint are no longer in effect, ”Allen wrote. “The Court finds that Governor Northam is immune under the Eleventh Amendment from the statutory and constitutional claims of the Claimant State. The applicant’s remaining claims are rejected.

Liberty Counsel argued that Northam should not be immune in this matter.

“Governor Ralph Northam is not immune as a defendant in this lawsuit over his unconstitutional executive orders on COVID,” Staver said in October. “The governor has issued and enforced his illegal ordinances and can no longer escape his responsibility.”

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