An executive order issued by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) makes it a crime for anyone to gather in groups of larger than 10 people — and that includes churches, according to CNS News.
"Information from the Virginia Department of Health reveals occurrences of the virus in every region of the Commonwealth. Indeed, the data suggests that in several regions there may be community spread of the virus," the order reads. "Now, we must take additional long term action to mitigate the impacts of this virus on our Commonwealth."
About the order: Executive Order 53 was signed by the governor on Monday. It prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people, closes all K-12 schools for the rest of the school year, closes all restaurant and bar dine-in services, and closes all "recreational and entertainment businesses."
The order took effect Wednesday. Exemptions include typical essential businesses like grocery stores, banks, health care providers, and pharmacies, but also includes, for some reason, beer, wine, and liquor stores.
What about churches? The order doesn't explicitly mention religious gatherings, but the governor's office confirmed that religious services were not included in the list of exemptions that was granted to liquor stores. CNS News reported:
But a "Frequently Asked Questions" sheet that his office published about the executive order does address the issue.
The fifth question it answers is: "What about religious services? Can I still go to my church, synagogue, or mosque?"
The answer: "Virginians are strongly encouraged to seek alternative means of attending religious services, such as virtually or via 'drive-through' worship. Places of worship that do conduct in-person services must limit gatherings to 10 people, to comply with the statewide 10-person ban."
Criminal penalties: The executive order makes violations a Class 1 misdemeanor. Such misdemeanors are punishable by up to 12 months in jail and fines of up to $2,500.
Terence P. Jeffrey wrote for CNS News that the order sets a potentially dangerous precedent.
"What would St. Thomas More think of a government that made it a crime to gather and pray in church?" Jeffrey wrote. "What would the framers of the First Amendment think? What future 'emergencies' will inspire future governors to act on Northam's precedent?"