An empty sanctuary awaits parishioners on Palm Sunday at Saint Mary's Catholic Church Sunday April 5, 2020, in Richmond, Va…
An empty sanctuary awaits parishioners on Palm Sunday at Saint Mary's Catholic Church Sunday April 5, 2020, in Richmond, Va.

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a statement in support of a church that is challenging the state of Virginia’s ban on gatherings of more than ten people. 

The church argued in a federal lawsuit that Governor Ralph Northam’s order infringes upon constitutional rights to free expression of religion. 

Chincoteague, Virginia police issued a criminal citation to the church’s pastor after an early April service attended by 16 people who observed social distancing measures. 

The Justice Department said the state has not demonstrated it has compelling reasons to treat the church differently from non-religious businesses that are allowed to operate with more than 10 people. 

The department’s filing said the government must strike a balance between maintaining best public health practices and ensuring liberties. 

"The United States has a substantial interest in the preservation of its citizens' fundamental right to free exercise of religion, expressly protected by the First Amendment,” the Justice Department said. 

In late April U.S. Attorney General William Barr threatened legal action against restrictions imposed by state and local authorities that undercut religious freedom and other constitutional rights.   

In a memo, Barr directed the Justice Department’s top civil rights official and federal prosecutors around the country to be “on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”  

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