A religious discrimination case brought by Madison County Christians against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam regarding church restrictions during the pandemic settled itself on Wednesday.
An order endorsed Sept. 23 in Madison County Circuit Court by Judge David B. Franzén dismissed the complaint per a mutual agreement of the parties.
Both sides acknowledged that per the current Phase 3 of the governor’s reopening plan, religious services of 250 or fewer people are no longer subject to mandatory restrictions other than executive order 63 regarding face coverings, according to the settlement.
A ban on public or private gatherings larger than 250 people remains in effect in Virginia.
Northam’s earlier executive orders limited church attendance to 50 percent capacity and initially no more than 10 people, essentially closing most churches. Some churches closed on their own and still continue to limit capacity or meet differently—outside or online —as the pandemic stretches into its seventh month.
The order settling the Madison suit stated each party was to bear their own costs in the action.
From the office of the Virginia Attorney General, lawyers Jessica Merry Samuels and Toby Heytens were listed as counsel for the governor in the case.
Plaintiffs in the case were Madison County church members Brian Hermsmeier, Joe Sansone, Culpeper attorney Mike Sharman and Charlie Sheads.
Their suit claimed Northam’s executive orders during the pandemic divided Virginians into groups that were fully or partially exempt and those who were not. It alleged the governor put more COVID-19 limitations, restrictions and mandates upon churches and churchgoers than any other category.
Northam Press Secretary Charlotte Gomer said in an email Wednesday that the plaintiffs sued over things in the executive order that didn’t really apply to them.
Attorney General Mark Herring has successfully defended Virginia’s COVID-19 mitigation measures numerous times, including two that challenged the state’s mask mandate, she said.
“Today’s agreed order is yet another favorable outcome that will help keep Virginians healthy,’’ Gomer said. She added that the safety measures in place have proven effective in preventing the virus from spreading further, thus keeping citizens safe.
Plaintiffs in the suit argued while they were free to go to work, Northam’s orders constrained their ability to volunteer at and attend church. The men alleged the governor’s orders favored secular work over religious activities in violation of the state constitution, bill of rights and other Virginia statues they said give Virginians even more freedom of religion that guaranteed in the First Amendment.
Sharman, who has a law office on East Davis Street in town, issued a news release Tuesday upon disposition of the case: “Gov. Northam Agrees with Madison County Churchmen That His COVID-19 Orders Don’t Apply to Churches With Less than 250 Attendees.”
Sansone, a private business owner and church attendee, said Northam’s “heavy restrictions on churches” violated Section 16 of Virginia’s Bill of Rights, which he said, “mentions our duty to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” He added, “Arbitrary restrictions on church attendance limit my ability to practice these articles of my faith.”
Per the agreed-upon order, according to Sharman, the only remaining restriction on churches deals with face coverings. He stated in his release, under this week’s order, it’s up to the individual to respond to the mask mandate and it’s not on the church.
According to the current Phase 3 of Northam’s reopening plan, “Wearing a face covering is mandatory for religious services,” except when engaging in religious rituals like Communion. The most recent order also requires six feet of distance at religious services, not including families.
Church musician and mechanic Sheads called the outcome of the local action a victory.
“We as a church can come together and decide if we want to restrict ourselves, but the government cannot step in and do it for us,” he said.
In a statement, Sharman, a Sunday School teacher, gave God all the credit.
“In our suit, we simply asked for the law to be followed and justice to be done so that churches would be treated fairly,” he said. “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.’”
Since March, Northam has issued nearly two dozen executive orders related to restrictions on citizens, schools, businesses and religious institutions related to COVID-19 as well as numerous changes and additions to those orders. Statewide as of Wednesday, 3,089 people had died from the illness.
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