Four Madison County men have filed suit against Governor Ralph Northam, alleging a violation of their religious rights.

The 36-page suit, filed May 28 in Madison County Circuit Court, seeks to protect religious liberties of the four men—Brian Hermsmeier, Joe Sansone, Mike Sharman and Charlie Sheads—and the churches they serve. Hermsmeier is a bivocational pastor who leads a church in Rappahannock County; Sansone, a small business owner and attendee of a Madison County church; Sharman, a lawyer and local church Sunday school teacher; and Sheads, a master mechanic and musician of a local church.

The suit alleges that Governor Northam’s executive orders regarding COVID-19 violate Article 1, Section 16 of the Constitution of Virginia and the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which protect the free exercise of religion. The suit states that Northam’s orders are neither neutral nor of general applicability and divide and segment people into groups who are fully or partially exempt and those who are not protected.

The plaintiffs allege that the orders favor secular work disfavor religious activities. Church and workers are not deemed essential and members or attendees are banned from gathering in groups of more than 10, including workers. However, executive order 53 allows non-essential businesses to limit to 10 patrons or less, not including workers. The order doesn’t place a limit on essential businesses.

According to the suit, executive order 61,which spells out the first of the three-phased approach to reopening, placed specific restrictions on churches including no more than 50 percent of the lowest occupancy load on the certificate for the room or facility where a service is held; people must be six feet apart except for family members; no passed items; only disposable tableware can be used; thorough cleanings must be done; and signage must be placed with guidelines and recommendations regarding COVID-19. The suit alleges the same restrictions are not placed on other gatherings with restaurants being able to use normal tableware, pass items and have 10 people in a party regardless if they are family members.

The suit states that the plaintiffs “are being enforced, restrained, molested or burthened in their ability to express and exercise their religious opinions and beliefs by the constraints and restraints placed upon them” by executive orders 53, included its two amended versions, 55 and 61.

The suit states religious freedoms are exempt from government overreach, yet things like law firms and liquor stores, which are not protected, have more freedoms than churches under the executive orders.

The plaintiffs state they don’t believe they should have more rights than other gatherings, but shouldn’t be more restricted. They are seeking a declatory judgement that executive orders 53, 55 and 61 are beyond the scope of the governor’s executive authority and are violative of Article I, Section 16 of the Constitution of Virginia. They also seek an immediate temporary injunction preventing the enforcement of executive order 61 on churches and an immediate temporary injunction on the prohibition of attending church providing it meets the same distancing, sanitation and hygiene requirements that have been set forth for entities deemed essential under the orders. The temporary injunction would be followed preliminary injunction pending trial and a permanent injunction upon judgement. They also seek the same against orders 53, and its amended versions, and order 55. The plaintiffs request that the state permit religious gatherings on the same terms which it has allowed for essential commercial and non-religious entities with no limits on the number of people in attendance.

One of the plaintiffs, Sheads, believes that the executive orders have violated his First Amendment rights and have affected his Biblical responsibilities and family life.

“I can’t do my job as a parent to raise my children properly if my God-given right to take them to church is taken away or restricted by man,” he said.

Sharman, one of the plaintiffs and the lawyer who filed the suit, agreed.

“We simply want churches to be treated the same as businesses and other social gatherings,” he said. “Religious freedom is woven into and through Virginia’s history. The purpose of our complaint is to protect and perpetuate Virginia’s legacy of religious freedom.”

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