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Judge rules against Southwest Virginia man’s church suit

RICHMOND — A Russell County judge ruled against a Southwest Virginia man’s request to allow groups of 10 or more people gather in church for Easter.

Judge Michael Moore denied on Thursday retired teacher Larry Hughes’ appeal for a temporary injunction in a lawsuit filed earlier this week that claims executive orders from Gov. Ralph Northam limiting the number of people that can gather in one place infringes on his religious freedom.

“The equities do not weigh in [petitioner’s] favor based on this pandemic,” Moore said, according to a news release from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. “And to say that this injunction to be granted would be in the public interest is not defensible. So the court is going to deny the request for temporary injunction.”

The hearing was held via phone and closed to the press.

Herring said in a statement that he is “really pleased” with the decision.

“Science tells us that social distancing is the most important thing we can do to save lives and prevent the spread of (COVID-19), and that’s exactly what these orders are doing,” Herring said. “We are all having to sacrifice right now to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safe and our win today maintains these crucial safety measures.”

Hughes, a Christian, had filed the lawsuit Monday in advance of Easter on Sunday — what is normally an occasion that draws thousands to churches but will this year be celebrated mainly online via church live streams.

Northam’s executive orders 53 and 55 ban public and private gatherings of 10 or more people, specifically mentioning religious events both inside and outside. Hughes’ lawsuit claims that it’s unfair to effectively shut down religious gatherings but allow other businesses that have been deemed essential to stay open.

T. Shead Cook, Hughes’ lawyer, called Northam’s action a “dangerous precedent” in a phone interview Thursday after the hearing.

“We’d hoped to be able to get some relief prior to the Easter weekend, but ultimately we knew it was going to be difficult,” Cook said. “We’re talking about a fundamental right that — in a time of crisis — has been eroded.”

Cook said the case will move forward, just not with the injunction before Easter that they had asked for.


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