A Russell County man is suing Gov. Ralph Northam, saying Northam's executive orders limiting religious services to no more than 10 people violates 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 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.

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 immediately return a request for comment.

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

(This is a developing story. It will be updated.)


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