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Virginia can shutter churches during coronavirus pandemic, judge rules

Virginia can shutter churches during coronavirus pandemic, judge rules 1

A state judge denied a Virginia man’s legal attempt to open churches ahead of Easter Sunday, ruling in favor of Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home ordinance during the coronavirus pandemic.

Plaintiff Larry Hughes, who describes himself in court proceedings as a “professing Christian,” had sued Mr. Northam in Russell County circuit court in southwestern Virginia, claiming the governor’s temporary stay-at-home order issued last month that did not exempt religious activities as an essential reason for leaving home violated the state constitution, including the provision on religious freedom.

“Whether a church should shut their doors under the current circumstances,” wrote Mr. Hughes’ attorney, is a matter that state law “requires be left to the leadership and congregation of the church, not executive fiat.”

However, on Thursday, Russell County Circuit Judge Michael Moore denied Mr. Hughes’ request for a preliminary injunction to pave the way for legal church attendance on Sunday.

“The equities do not weigh in [petitioner’s] favor based on this pandemic,” said Judge Moore, in the telephone hearing. “And to say that this injunction to be granted would be in the public interest is not defensible.”

Mr. Northam’s executive order limits gatherings to 10 or fewer people until June. Mr. Hughes argued the order violated his state constitutional guarantee of the enjoyment of life and liberty.

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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued a statement following Thursday’s court victory, saying, “We are all having to sacrifice right now to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safe.”

American United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C., freedom-from-religion watchdog group, had filed an amicus brief urging Virginia to keep in place the religious exemption.

On Thursday, a panel of Republican Kansas lawmakers overturned Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order that had limited church attendance to 10 or fewer persons.

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