Apr 09, 2020

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the Circuit Court of Russell County, Va., to protect Virginia residents from the spread of COVID-19 by allowing a public health order banning large gatherings to remain in place without exemptions for religious services.

Americans United filed an amicus brief today in Hughes v. Northam, explaining that it is not only permissible for Virginia to include houses of worship and religious services in the temporary ban of large, in-person gatherings, but it would be unconstitutional to exempt religious gatherings from the order.

The U.S. Constitution makes clear that religious exemptions can be granted only if they won’t cause harm to others. A religious exemption from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s order would endanger the public health because COVID-19 can spread as easily at religious gatherings as it does at secular gatherings, and it can spread well beyond the people who participate in these events. An exemption also would unconstitutionally grant special privileges to religious activities.

“We appreciate that these public health orders are difficult for everyone, including people of faith who find comfort in religious services during such challenging times,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “But COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings – it can sicken people just as easily at both, putting entire communities in danger. Gov. Northam’s public health order does not violate religious freedom; it ensures religious freedom is not misused to risk people’s lives. We applaud the faith communities who are finding creative new ways to worship together virtually. We will get through this crisis together, even if not in person.” 

In addition to filing today’s brief in Virginia and a similar brief in a case in the Texas Supreme Court last week, Americans United has called on the governors and public health officials of Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan and New Mexico to stop exempting worship services and other religious gatherings from their executive orders that prohibit the public from gathering in large groups. These religious exemptions not only pose a significant risk to the public health, but they also violate the Constitution’s promise of church-state separation, which demands that religious and secular gatherings be treated equally.

“The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom protects the right to practice the faith of one’s choice,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United. “It also protects others from being harmed in the name of this precious freedom. Gov. Northam’s order respects both public health and religious freedom.”

AU’s Amicus Brief to the Circuit Court of Russell County, Va., in Hughes v. Northam.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.