Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Virginia Trial Court Rejects Religious Challenge To COVID-19 Restrictions On Churches

In Young v. Northam, 2021 Va. Cir. LEXIS 35 (VA Cir. Ct., Feb. 27, 2021), a Virginia state trial court refused to enjoin the Governor's most recent COVID-19 restrictions on churches. Finding that plaintiffs have not overcome the exception for health and safety in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the court said in part:

The Petitioners religious beliefs are genuine and sincere, but Executive Order # 72 does not prohibit assembly, the taking of communion, singing, praying nor restrict capacity in churches. St. Matthew states that "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20.

There are no capacity limits in Executive Order # 72 and non-religious gatherings have stricter requirements regardless of occurring indoors or outdoors. (12). Section (E) of the statute certainly contemplated that some temporary restrictions may be necessary in emergency situations.

The next issue, consistent with the statute, is whether the least restrictive means have been employed to further the compelling governmental interest. Executive Order # 72 exempts religious services from the otherwise-universal temporary gathering restrictions. The order indicates that individuals may be seated wherever and with whomever they want with appropriate physical distancing.

This court recognizes an honest distinction between an appropriate political debate that reflects rational disagreement with the Respondent's order and a judicial ruling that such order is unconstitutional. Therefore, the court holds that the Petitioners are not entitled to injunctive relief under the statute.

The court also rejected a 1st Amendment free exercise challenge.