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Madison County residents sue Northam over earlier church restrictions

Four Madison County residents have sued Gov. Ralph Northam, saying state executive orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 infringe upon their religious freedom.

Northam’s executive orders describing limits on state operations and businesses did not deem church employees essential, and barred attendees from gathering together in numbers greater than 10.

One of the plaintiffs, Mike Sharman, is a lawyer who teaches an adult Sunday school class at his church, according to the complaint.

“We simply want churches to be treated the same as businesses and other social gatherings,” he said in a news release. “Religious freedom is woven into and through Virginia’s history. The purpose of our complaint is to protect and perpetuate Virginia’s legacy of religious freedom.”

The undated complaint asks the court to immediately stop state and local officials from enforcing meeting limits for religious gatherings, if churches and other religious organizations are following the social distancing and cleaning guidelines in effect for essential businesses.

A church in Chincoteague also sued the state after its pastor was issued a criminal citation for having 16 people at a Palm Sunday service. Attorney General Mark Herring’s office responded in a court filing that preventing the state from barring gatherings of more than 10 people “would seriously undermine” state public health efforts, according to The Associated Press.

Beginning May 15, Virginia churches were allowed to begin operating at 50% capacity. Churches must seat those attending at least six feet apart at all times, excluding family groups, and are asked to encourage face masks.


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