Virginia man sues to reopen churches by Easter. ‘We could worship and still observe social distance guidelines’

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

A Russell County man who wants to attend church on Easter is asking a judge to overturn Gov. Ralph Northam’s ban on religious gatherings larger than 10 people.

“We could worship and still observe social distance guidelines,” said Terrence Shea Cook, who is representing plaintiff Larry Hughes in the lawsuit filed against Northam Monday.

Northam implemented the ban on large gatherings to limit the spread of COVID-19. In his executive order, he specifically said the rule includes parties, celebrations and religious and other social events.

But Cook argues that Northam’s ban violates the state Constitution because it is not religiously neutral insofar as it allows many businesses, including offices and other workplaces, to remain open with no restrictions.

“I guess the question is, why are churches given the short end of this stick?” Cook said. “The same thing doesn’t apply to vape shops or liquor stores.”

He described Hughes as a man in his 60s who has gone to church most of his life and considers it part of his identity. He’s asking the court to issue a preliminary injunction overturning the order this week because it “will have a chilling effect on (his right) to attend Easter services.”

Attorney General Mark Herring, who is defending Northam in the suit, called the restrictions imposed by Northam reasonable and prudent in the face of “a deadly virus that currently has no established treatment or cure and has the potential to overwhelm the Commonwealth’s healthcare system.”

He said religious groups have alternatives, including drive-in services in which people don’t leave their cars and services streamed over the internet. “Time and again, large gatherings have provided fertile ground for transmission of this deadly virus — and in-person religious services have not been spared.”

A telephone hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday, according to Herring’s office.