Two pastors are suing Governor Ralph Northam over Executive Order 72 (EO 72), saying that the order places restrictions on churches that aren’t placed on educational institutions or essential businesses. Pastor Jeff Light and Reverend Jon Heddleston are being represented in the Rappahannock Circuit Court by lawyer Mike Sharman, who is also representing plaintiffs from churches in Madison and Culpeper in two other lawsuits against Northam.
A press release from Sharman’s office highlights the difference in EO 72 between a “gathering” at church and people in an educational setting.
“A church is allowed to have a ‘gathering’ of more than 10 people, but only if it strictly adheres to the Governor’s physical distancing and sanitization plan, otherwise it has to close,” the press release states.
On the other hand, “Under Executive Order 72, the leadership of an educational group can decide how they want to operate: ‘Individuals assembled for educational instruction adhere to the applicable physical distancing and sanitization plan and guidelines of the relevant governing body or educational institution,'” the release states. “The Plaintiffs’ suit claims the Governor’s Executive Order 72 reflects the Governor’s bias and belief that employers and educational leaders are to be trusted and church leaders are not.”
“Individuals assembled for educational instruction can do what their governing body or educational institution says. But they don’t trust the church to do that,” Sharman told The Star in December. “Right there it’s unconstitutional, and it also reflects the bigotry. We trust schools, we don’t trust churches. We trust media, we don’t trust churches. We trust government, we don’t trust churches.”
EO 72, which includes the mask and social distancing rule, expires January 31, but Sharman said he expects Northam to issue a new order.
Sharman is now waiting for the government’s response to his latest lawsuit. Sharman said the Governor has responded to both the Madison and Culpeper cases with the same defense. The Culpeper case is scheduled for a hearing for a temporary injunction February 11.
The Madison and Culpeper lawsuits represent plaintiffs from three churches: Slate Mills Baptist Church, Alum Springs Baptist Church, and Novum Baptist Church. The Rappahannock lawsuit is the second featuring plaintiffs from Novum Baptist Church — although Light is the pastor, he wasn’t represented in the earlier lawsuit, and is a Rappahannock resident. Heddleston leads Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church, the fourth church with members represented by one of the three lawsuits.
As part of his ministry, Light runs a food pantry.
“The Governor has determined our church to be a ‘non-essential’ function of society, but he considers the food distribution that I do to be ‘essential’ and thus exempt from the requirements of the Order,” Light said in the press release. “That low view of religion and our Constitutional liberties cannot be allowed to stand. We must do all we can to ensure the free exercise of our faith; nothing must ever be allowed to stifle or hinder that which God has called to action.”
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