Four Madison County churchmen have revived a lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam following a new executive order intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, which they argue limits their religious liberties.
An earlier version of the lawsuit was filed in July in Madison County Circuit Court on behalf of four Madison County church members: Brian Hermsmeier, Joe Sansone, Culpeper attorney Mike Sharman and Charlie Sheads.
In that complaint, the plaintiffs wrote that they believed Northam had disregarded their religious liberties and undermined churches.
The case was dismissed by an agreed order in September during Phase 3 of Virginia’s reopening after a Madison County Circuit Court judge found that the only remaining state restriction in place over church attendance was Executive Order 63, which requires people to wear face coverings indoors.
However, according to a news release from the churchmen, the lawsuit was revived this week in response to Northam’s Executive Order 67, which was issued last month in response to surging COVID-19 case numbers.
Per that executive order, people may attend church services of more than 25 people as long as several safety restrictions are in place, including: a six-foot separation between those seated; items used to distribute food or beverage must be used only once and then disposed; high-contact surfaces must be routinely cleaned and disinfected; signage must be posted informing people with fevers that they cannot participate in in-person services; and cloth face-coverings must be worn during religious services.
According to the order, if churches cannot comply with these requirements then they cannot hold in-person services.
The updated orders ultimately ignore the previously reached agreement and discourage the religious gathering of large groups of people, the release on behalf of the churchmen reads.
Their lawsuit requests that churches be able to operate as an exempted category, and argues that churchgoers are not being treated fairly in comparison to “essential” operations such as media and government agencies.
In the release, plaintiff Brian Hermsmeier, a bi-vocational minister and ordained pastor, said that he believes it is “God’s command to gather together,” citing verse Hebrews 10:25 of the Bible.
“Virginia is known for supporting religious freedom,” Hermsmeier said in the release and the “targeting of churches with COVID-19 restrictions tarnishes that reputation.”
Alena Yarmosky, a representative for the governor’s office, said they do not comment on pending litigation.
“Governor Northam will continue to base all decisions in science, public health and the safety of Virginians,” she said.
As of Friday, the Virginia Department of Health was reporting 247,380 cases across the state and 15,116 hospitalizations. So far, 4,160 Virginians have succumbed to the virus, per VDH.
In Madison County Friday, the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District reported 195 total cases, 13 hospitalizations and four deaths.
According to VDH, religious services that include indoor activities are considered “even more risk,” a category just below “highest risk.”
Other activities categorized as “even more risk” are medium-sized in-person gatherings that are adapted to allow individuals to remain spaced at least six feet apart. In these situations, the VDH encouraged all persons to wear masks and sharing items and group meals are discouraged.
“Highest risk,” activities include resuming standard services with large in-person gatherings held indoors where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart.
Religious gatherings with spacing and other safety precautions as detailed in Executive Order 67 is categorized as “more risk,” a step above the “lowest risk,” tier which involves situations where services are only provided virtually.