Three residents of Culpeper County have filed suit with the Culpeper County Circuit Court for relief from Governor Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions since he has reneged on a previous Agreed Order from a similar Madison County suit that freed churches from his regulation of their religious activities.
The Northam administration recently issued his Sixth Amended Executive Order 67 which prohibits all public and private gatherings of more than 25 people and any religious gathering of more than 25 people unless the Governor’s multiple restrictions are strictly followed.
Supposedly, it is unsafe for worshippers to gather in churches, but page 11 of the Order explicitly states that, “The presence of more than 25 individuals performing functions of their employment or assembled in an educational instructional setting is not a ‘gathering.’” Plaintiffs in the suit point out the stark inequality of Gov. Northam’s restrictions favoring non-religious education over religious education taught in a pastor’s sermon or a Sunday School lesson. That, they say, reflects illegal bigotry, not public health safety.
One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Pastor Ron Young, is a full-time pastor at a Culpeper County church who also works part-time at a funeral home. He joined the suit to fight for not only his own church, but others as well. “Northam’s restrictions are reducing the amount of people worshipping,” he says. “He is taking away our freedom of assembly.”
Plaintiff Charles Sheads, Sr. works as a parts coordinator at an equipment company, is a member of a Madison County church, and performs as a gospel musician for religious services throughout the state. He believes that the Governor has blatantly overstepped the authority granted him by the Constitution. “We should, as responsible citizens, respond to the edicts of the government of Virginia,” he says, “and question this latest unfair order of its authority to once again limit worship services.”
Plaintiff Jocie Stallings is a member of a Madison County church and gospel musician as well, but she is also a registered nurse. Her profession has been considered essential throughout the pandemic, yet she is limited in her ability to carry out her religious freedoms as a result of Gov. Northam’s restrictions. Stallings says, “I am simply asking that gathering in the church be recognized as essential, just like a store.”
Plaintiffs hope that the court will once again lift the discriminatory restrictions placed upon religious services, as well as allow the church to operate as any other essential business.
J. Michael Sharman
Commonwealth Law Offices, P.C.