Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam told Virginians Thursday that they don’t need to be in church for God to hear their prayers.
The governor announced a new executive order Thursday expanding mask mandates, setting a curfew between midnight and 5 a.m., and lowering the number of people at social gatherings to 10 or less people, the Washington Post reported. The measures go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
Though these restrictions do not affect houses of worship, Northam urged those who wish to continue worshipping in person to stay home and practice recommended safety measures due to a rise in coronavirus cases.
“This year, we need to think about what is truly the most important thing,” the governor said. “Is it the worship or the building?”
“For me, God is wherever you are,” he continued. “You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers.”
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“Worship with a mask on is still worship, worship outside or worship online is still worship,” Northam added. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Critics of Northam’s comments pointed out that in-person attendance at religious services is a fundamental aspect of worship for many religions, particularly Catholicism.
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Earlier this year Northam banned gatherings of 10 or more people through initial stay-at-home orders, restrictions which effectively banned church services. Authorities have arrested multiple religious leaders for defying coronavirus orders, such as Pastor Tony Spell of the Louisiana Life Tabernacle church and Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne.
In April, a Southern Virginia judge denied a request for a temporary injunction in Russell County resident Larry Hughes’s lawsuit saying that Virginia’s stay-at-home order violated religious freedom.
The DOJ filed a statement of interest with a Virginia federal court on May 3 supporting Lighthouse Fellowship Church, which serves recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband noted at the time that “for many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis.”
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has offered no good reason for refusing to trust congregants who promise to use care in worship in the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and other workers to do the same,” Dreiband said.
Northam is not the only lawmaker who has been accused of restricting religious freedom during the pandemic. Governors and mayors across the United States have issued orders throughout the pandemic that restrict or prohibit religious services, and the DOJ has pushed back against such restrictions on multiple occasions.
Gallup polling released this week found that only those who attended religious services weekly saw a positive change between 2019 and 2020 in how they rated their mental health. No other Demographic group in the Gallup poll saw a percentage increase in rating their mental health as excellent.
“Houses of worship and religious services provide so much more than just a weekly meeting place — they are where so many Americans find strength, community, and meaning,” the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s Director of Research Caleb Lyman told the Daily Caller News Foundation Wednesday.
He continued, “Findings from this year’s Religious Freedom Index—that 62 percent of respondents said that faith had been important during the pandemic — align with Gallup’s findings on the importance of religious services to Americans’ mental health.”