In an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued an executive order on Monday making public gatherings of more than 10 people a criminal offence.
According to CNS News, Northam’s order does not make any exceptions for places of worship, essentially rendering church services illegal until social distancing mandates are lifted.
“Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by Article V, Section 7 of the Constitution of Virginia, by § 44-146.17 of the Code of Virginia and in furtherance of Executive Order 51, I order the following: 1. Effective 11:59 p.m., Tuesday, March 24, 2020 until 11:59 p.m., Thursday, April 23, 2020, all public and private in person gatherings of 10 or more individuals are prohibited,” reads the first paragraph of the executive order.
“Violation of paragraphs 1, 3, 4, and 6 of this Order shall be a Class 1 misdemeanor pursuant to § 44-146.17 of the Code of Virginia,” the order continues.
§ 44-146.17 itself reads, “Executive orders, to include those declaring a state of emergency and directing evacuation, shall have the force and effect of law and the violation thereof shall be punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor in every case where the executive order declares that its violation shall have such force and effect.”
In the executive order, Northam declared, “Violations of paragraph 1” — which states that “all public and private in person gatherings of 10 or more individuals are prohibited” — are now Class 1 misdemeanors.
Under § 18.2-11, the punishment for Class 1 misdemeanors includes “confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both.”
Although Northam’s executive order nowhere indicates that it does, in fact, apply to church services or other religious gatherings, a Frequently Asked Questions sheet published by the governor’s office offers somewhat more clarity.
“What about religious services? Can I still go to my church, synagogue, or mosque?” asks one of the questions.
“Virginians are strongly encouraged to seek alternative means of attending religious services, such as virtually or via ‘drive-through’ worship,” reads the answer. “Places of worship that do conduct in-person services must limit gatherings to 10 people, to comply with the statewide 10-person ban.”
“To make certain that this meant that the law making it a misdemeanor criminal offense to have gatherings of more than 10 people applied to churches,” CNS News editor-in-chief Terence P. Jeffrey asked Northam’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, in an email.
“How about a simple yes or no: Are church attendees and churches exempted from the misdemeanor penalty that applies to other individuals and organizations that violate the governor’s Executive Order and have gatherings that bring together more than 10 people?” Jeffrey asked.
“The Governor’s EO 53 bans assemblies of more than 10 people, statewide,” Yarmosky responded. “That includes gatherings at private schools, private clubs, parties, as well as any other social get-together, and religious services.”
“Virginians now live in a state where holding a church service attended by 11 people has been unilaterally declared a crime by the governor,” Jeffrey declared. “The same executive order that creates this church-attending crime also declares that Virginia’s state-owned liquor stores are ‘essential retail businesses’ that ‘may remain open during their normal business hours.’”
While many churches are taking the initiative themselves to conduct services remotely or outdoors at this time, such a strong restriction of the right to peaceable assembly and religious expression is a troubling move, to say the least.
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