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Churches and COVID-19

Virginia may be on the verge of opening up again soon. But for now, churches across the Commonwealth are closed. And, that’s led to a legal challenge.

When the Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island opened its doors on Palm Sunday and allowed 16 people inside to worship, the pastor was in violation of the governor’s executive order for people to stay at home. That led to a citation and ultimately a lawsuit now working its way through the court system, even as state leaders consider how they’re going to start easing restrictions.

Carl Tobias at the University of Richmond Law School says the case pits freedom against safety. 

“Traditionally, we’ve said that executives have enormous power to protect people in public health situations where they might be seriously ill or die," Tobias explains. "So that’s an important interest, of course. And so is religious freedom to worship. So I think there’s real tension there, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer.”

One voice calling for the governor to start opening churches is Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith. He says the governor should take a regional approach rather than taking action statewide. 

“Down here, the hardware store parking lots are packed on the weekends. I mean it looks like at the local Lowe’s there was a rock concert going on in there on a Saturday," he says. "And so you’ve got lots of people there. Why is that not dangerous? Why did the Commonwealth decide to keep open the liquor stores?”

For now, the liquor stores are open and the churches remain closed as judges consider the fate of the governor’s stay at home order. The governor said Monday that churches would be accommodated in Phase One reopening guidelines, though so far he hasn’t been specific about what that would entail.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.