A Russell County man is suing Northam, saying the governor’s executive orders limiting religious services to no more than 10 people violate the Virginia Constitution.

Larry Hughes filed the suit Monday in Russell County Circuit Court and is looking for an injunction that would allow churches and other faith communities to hold limitless group assemblies. Northam has barred groups of 10 or more from meeting in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed 75 people in the commonwealth, according to the state Health Department.

In the suit, Hughes, a retired coal miner and teacher, says that Northam’s executive orders have a “chilling effect” on his right to religious freedom.

“[Hughes] will not know the number of participants that may be at a service until he arrives,” the lawsuit reads. “Even the pastor of a church may fear numerical non-compliance and simply close the doors to avoid turning out participants during service if the number suddenly exceeds the permissible limit.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, Hughes deferred questions to his lawyer, T. Shead Cook. Hughes’ attorney said that “the constitution is not a prescription for convenience,” and Cook added that upcoming religious holidays can be observed with proper social distancing.

Hughes, a Christian, is asking the court, specifically Russell County Judge Michael Moore, to issue an injunction overturning the order this week. Passover began Wednesday night and Easter is Sunday.

Attorney General Mark Herring defended Northam in a brief filed Tuesday.

“As a person of faith, the Governor recognized that the temporary gatherings restriction would be particularly hard on religious communities. … The Governor has issued guidance designed to help faith communities maintain their communion and worked with religious leaders to find creative solutions, including online and drive-in services,” the brief reads.

Herring added: “Time and again, large gatherings have provided fertile ground for transmission of this deadly virus — and in-person religious services have not been spared.”

A spokeswoman for Northam did not return a request for comment.

The executive orders at issue — Executive Order 53 and Executive Order 55 — prohibit public and private gatherings of 10 or more people, specifically mentioning religious events both inside and outside. The suit says it’s unfair to effectively shut down religious gatherings but allow other businesses that have been deemed essential — Hughes highlighted beer, wine and liquor stores specifically — to stay open.

In response to Herring’s defense, Cook said in a brief filed Wednesday that the orders place “commercial/secular interests above the guaranteed freedom of religion.”

“The limitation of no more than 10 persons at a religious service when there are so many exceptions, is evidence that this is not a religiously neutral rule of general application but substantially burdens specific biblical guidance,” the brief reads.

Russell County has one confirmed COVID-19 case, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Herring spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer said a hearing on the case is scheduled to be held via phone on Thursday.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306​

State Government Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers Virginia politics and policy. He previously covered education. A northern New York native and Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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