The state and four area churchgoers settled a lawsuit on Wednesday by agreeing that wearing face masks is the only requirement for religious gatherings with less than 250 attendees.
Four plaintiffs - Rappahannock County’s Slate Mills Church Pastor Brian Hermsmeier and Madison County’s Novum Baptist Church members Joe Sansone III, Mike Sharman and Charlie Sheads Jr. - filed a lawsuit in May against Gov. Ralph Northam seeking that just the least possible stringent restrictions be placed upon churches.
Sharman, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, noted via telephone that the settlement provides more than was being sought. Had the case been tried where it was filed in Madison County, he said any rulings would have applied only within that judicial district.
“This is absolutely the time to say God gets all the credit,” Sharman said. “If we had to fight through this suit and win, we would have only gotten what we want, which is a victory in Madison County...With this agreed order, it applies statewide.”
Another benefit of the outcome, Sharman said, is that churches are not accountable for individuals who do not wear face coverings.
“If they don’t wear a mask and they don’t come within the medical exemption, then they have to recognize the consequence is on them should somebody come through the door and give them a summons for violation, which is a class one misdemeanor. But it’s on the individual, the church still stays open,” he said.
Requirements regarding religious services under Phase 3 of Virginia’s reopening plan, which was instituted July 1, mandated that attendees who are not family members must practice six-foot social distancing guidelines. Initial requirements previously limited church gatherings to 10 participants and later to 50% capacity.
The lawsuit argued that the plaintiffs are all employed in what Northam has declared essential jobs, meaning that their “secular work is favored” while “their religious activities are disfavored.”
Therefore, court filings state that Northam trusts them “to operate in their secular occupations without any need for constraints, but he does not trust them to do so in religious settings and activities.” The filing adds that the defendants were allowed to sit together at a restaurant table but not at tables in churches or during Bible study groups.
Sharman said that church leaders should have freedom in determining how to maintain safety during the pandemic rather than “having various government bureaucrats make those decisions for people who are in entirely different situations.”
“If you subjugate the freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion below even the non-essential businesses, then you’ve basically lost grip on your society. You lost your basic moorings for why America has been America. Whether people in America have a particular religion or not, America’s always had a core value of freedom of thought,” Sharman said.
A news release from the plaintiffs states that Northam’s orders “illegally put more COVID-19 limitations, restrictions, and mandates upon churches and churchgoers than he has placed on any other category of operation in Virginia.” It adds that Northam’s orders “violated the Virginia Constitution, Virginia’s Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and other provisions of the Code of Virginia.”