Charges have been dropped against a Virginia minister who held a Palm Sunday service for 16 people in defiance of the state’s coronavirus lockdown orders at the time.
On April 5, police rushed into the 300-person-capacity Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island and arrested Pastor Kevin Wilson, according to Fox News.
“It shocked me, that [the police] came in all masked all up,” Wilson later said, according to Time. “And it shocked the people. They were saying, ‘What in the world is going on here?’”
“I am pleased that the charges were dropped,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which is representing Wilson, told Fox News. “They should’ve never been issued in the first place.”
The charges against Wilson carried a maximum penalty of a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
Wilson has filed suit against Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, claiming his church was a victim of discrimination and that his religious freedom was violated.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable that the pastor would be charged for having six people over the 10-person limit, and at the same time, Gov. Northam significantly hurt his case by encouraging mass protests and limiting this church to a 10-person limit,” Staver said.
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“[T]he United States believes that the church has set forth a strong case that the Orders, by exempting other activities permitting similar opportunities for in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals, while at the same time prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of more than ten … has impermissibly interfered with the church’s free exercise of religion.
“Unless the Commonwealth can prove that its disparate treatment of religious gatherings is justified by a compelling reason and is pursued through the least restrictive means, this disparate treatment violates the Free Exercise Clause, and the Orders may not be enforced against the church,” the statement of interest said.
“Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church,” Staver said. “We are pleased that all of the charges have now been dropped.”
Vice President Mike Pence has spoken out on behalf of the church.
“The very idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia would sanction a church for having 16 people come to a Palm Sunday service, when I think the church actually seats 250, was just beyond the pale, and I’m truly grateful for Attorney General William Barr standing by religious liberty,” Pence said in May, according to Fox News.
“We’re going to be celebrating the faith of the American people and the freedom to practice and live out our faith every day, and that’s why I wanted to speak out in favor of the DOJ’s action and just assure every American that we are going to stand by men and women of faith of every religion in this country and protect, even in this challenging time, protect their freedom of religion,” the vice president continued.
Virginia initially said church services could hold no more than 10 people, regardless of the size of the building in which they were held.
The order was modified in May to no more than 50 percent of the capacity of the building, according to WSLS-TV.
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