‘Coerced’: Lawsuit Accuses Northam Of Restricting Religious Freedom

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Mary Margaret Olohan Social Issues Reporter
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  • Russell County resident Larry Hughes filed a lawsuit against Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, saying his stay-at-home order violates religious freedom.
  • A judge ruled Thursday in favor of Democratic Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and denied Hughes’s request for a temporary injunction.
  • “If churches need to be regulated because of COVID-19, let it be no more restrictive than Virginia’s own commercial operations,” Hughes’s lawyer told the DCNF.

A judge denied a request for a temporary injunction in a lawsuit that states Virginia’s stay-at-home order violates religious freedom.

Southern Virginia Russell County Circuit Court Judge Michael Moore ruled in favor of Democratic Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Thursday and denied a request for a temporary injunction in Russell County resident Larry Hughes’s lawsuit, Hughes v. Northam, the Virginia attorney general’s office told the Daily Caller News Foundation on Friday.

“The equities do not weigh in [petitioner’s] favor based on this pandemic,” Moore said in a statement, according to the AG’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.”

Hughes had filed the lawsuit Monday in state court, his lawyer told the DCNF, a lawsuit which said that Northam’s stay-at-home order infringes on Hughes’s religious freedom. (RELATED: Northam Criminalizes Gatherings Larger Than 10, Even For Religious Services, As Part Of Coronavirus Restrictions)

Moore held a hearing over the phone Thursday where he denied Hughes’s request for an injunction — leaving Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph executive order in tact, according to an NBC Washington local news outlet. The hearing was not open to media, Cook told the DCNF.

“I believe that Executive Order 55(2) is discriminatory against religion because of the plethora of the exceptions for commercial interests,” Hughes said in his affidavit, adding that the order “treats religious activity as no more important, or constitutionally protected, than a high school football game, or some retirement party.”

Hughes said he feels “coerced” by the order as he wishes to be a law-abiding citizen, but he also wants “to be able to practice my religion as the bible requires.”

Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring’s office said Northam’s order should remain intact, saying that giving an exemption “would seriously undermine the Commonwealth’s efforts to slow the spread of a once-in-a-century pandemic,” NBC Washington reported, noting that Herring’s brief also emphasized that there are many online religious services available.

“I’m really pleased we were able to successfully defend Governor Northam’s Executive Orders,” Herring said in a statement provided to the DCNF. “Science tells us that social distancing is the most important thing we can do to save lives and prevent the spread of COVID19, and that’s exactly what these orders are doing. 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.”

Terrence Shea Cook, who is representing Hughes’s case, told the DCNF that they will be scheduling a final hearing next week, since Good Friday is honored as a holiday in Russell County, preventing the scheduling of a hearing Friday.

Cook noted that he wanted Hughes v. Northam to stay on the state level since the “claim is based purely on violation of Art 1, Section 16 of the Va Constitution and statute.” Media has represented the case as being rejected by Moore, he added, but Cook feels “more confident of ultimate success” after Thursday’s preliminary hearing.

“Moore would not grant a preliminary injunction which requires a higher standard than will be the case at the final hearing,” Cook said.

The Virginia Supreme Court has previously ruled that freedom of speech, press and religion occupy the same preferred position, he added.

“Media operations are specifically excluded from the executive orders, but religious services are simply lumped in to a 10 person limit,” Cook said.

He continued: “At the same time, the same orders provide for a laundry list of secular exceptions, including the Virginia ABC stores. Churches should be able to continue their operations, the same as all the ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ business with the simple requirement they also be required to follow social distancing guidelines.”

“In other words,” he said, “if churches need to be regulated because of COVID-19, let it be no more restrictive than Virginia’s own commercial operations.”

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