After losing in court last week, Governor Ralph Northam agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by four Madison County men who argued that the governor’s restrictions on churches violated the Virginia Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Virginia statute for religious freedom. According to The Roanoke Star, the only COVID-19 restrictions remaining against Virginia churchgoers after the Tuesday decision is the mask mandate.
Churches are not required to enforce the mandate.
Pastor Brian Hersmeier, Joe Sansone, Mike Sharman and Charlie Sheads originally sued in May, claiming that Northam’s executive orders 53, 55 and 61 were violations of both Virginia’s and the U.S.’ constitutions. However, when the plaintiffs learned this would force their case into federal court, they refiled just under Virginia law, according to the Madison Eagle.
Article 1, Section 16 of the Virginia Bill of Rights states in part, “It is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” Sansone told The Roanoke Star, “Arbitrary restrictions on church attendance limit my ability to practice these articles of my faith.”
Tuesday, a judge ordered that only executive order 63, the mask mandate, remain in effect against churches with congregations smaller than 250. “This is really a time where we absolutely have to give God all the credit,” Sharman told The Roanoke Star. “In our suit, we simply asked for the law to be followed and justice to be done so that churches would be treated fairly.” Sharman added, “With our Agreed Order, we got more than justice, we received the blessing of seeing a Bible verse being fulfilled, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.'”
Passionately Catholic author Suzy Kelly told The Virginia Star, “The state has to do what the state has to do, but the state should not interfere with worship. When this virus came out, it was new to everybody, and I just think that at first they tried to do things that would contain the virus. And I don’t necessarily think they were targeting churches at first, but then as it evolved, it seemed like additional regulations were placed on churches.”
“I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but they shouldn’t have been interfering with the worship end of it. Once you get inside a church, this is [where people] come to worship God. The state can’t come in and tell you how you’re supposed to worship.”
Kelly thinks churches should be careful about the ways they cooperate with government interference in worship, and she warns that even things like masks might be harmful and dehumanizing in the long term. She recently wrote, “We have allowed the state to put controls on how we can worship God. And we’ve done this without a fight, all in the name of safety and the greater good.”
“Guidelines are fine,” Kelly said, “especially in a case like this where we have a virus that no one quite knows what to do with.” Kelly said, “Don’t let it be policed by a government organization.”
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