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New law protecting religious liberty in times of emergency goes into effect in Virginia


“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”


A new law that went into effect this month will protect Virginia churches from facing harsher restrictions than other organizations, as was the case during the COVID pandemic when mandates drastically limited in-person worship services.

Quick Facts

The law amends the Code of Virginia to state,

No rule, regulation, or order issued by the Governor or other governmental entity pursuant to this chapter shall impose restrictions on the operation of a place of worship that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on any other business, organization, or activity.

When the COVID pandemic hit, churches across the country faced harsh restrictions, including bans on services, limitations on the number of people who could attend, mask mandates, and more. In March 2020, former Gov. Ralph Northam, D, issued an order dictating that Virginians stay at home except for specific actions such as going to the grocery store, getting medical care, or exercising outside. The order did not ban religious gatherings, but it did limit them to no more than 10 people, effectively stopping people from attending services.

“I want to be clear: Do not go out unless you need to go out. This is very different than wanting to go out,” Northam said at the time.

Later on, Northam lessened the restrictions but still limited religious organizations to 50 percent capacity and implemented requirements for them to be open such as mask mandates and social distancing. In December 2020, Northam urged religious observers to stay home.

“Now, I’d like to take a moment to talk about our faith communities. This is a holy time for multiple faith traditions. Tonight, as a matter of fact is the first night of Hanukkah. Christmas is two weeks away. The holidays are typically times of joy and community. We gather together, we celebrate our faith, and we celebrate with family. But this year we need to think about what is truly the most important thing: Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers.”

Virginia was not alone. Many states targeted churches with more stringent restrictions than businesses and other gathering places, even claiming that religious gatherings posed more risk for spreading Covid than other gatherings.

The Supreme Court struck down such biased restrictions numerous times.

The amended Virginia Code will now ensure that future administrations will not be able to treat churches as less important than any other organization or business.

The bill’s sponsor issued a statement, saying,

Freedom to gather and worship is a fundamental American right that is worth fighting for. Passing this bill is a spectacular win for the millions of church-going Christians and people of every faith all across Virginia. I am amazed and humbled at this victory for religious freedom.”

The legislation easily passed both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate where it passed 35-5. The Senate’s passing of the legislation comes after Democrats rejected a previous bill last year, which would have created exceptions for houses of worship during a pandemic and allowed people to file suit if they felt their religious exercise had been burdened.

This law enshrines a principle the Standing for Freedom Center has championed since our inception: Church is essential. When the COVID lockdowns were put in place, many authorities at the local, state, and national levels stopped Americans from exercising their right to worship, oftentimes while allowing not only critical businesses like grocery stores to remain open and operating at full capacity but also liquor stores, concerts, and strip clubs. By passing this law, both parties of the Virginia legislature say that this discriminatory system cannot be allowed to happen again in the future — no matter what the emergency.

James Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,

“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

God is the judge of each man, and while He grants governments the right to rule over the people, their authority is from Him and is subservient to His authority. Psalm 22:28 states,

“For the kingdom is the Lord’s
And He rules over the nations.”

When rulers tried to stop Americans from serving God, they failed to obey God. Now that we are on the other side of the COVID pandemic, Americans must remember the abuse of authority and support limitations to such abuses so that never again will Americans have their right to the free exercise of religion infringed.

Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.

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