Virginia county declares itself ‘First Amendment sanctuary’ in resolution opposing Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions

Virginia News

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Richmond, Va, Wednesday Nov 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Campbell County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday opposing coronavirus restrictions imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam, becoming the first locality in Virginia to declare itself a “First Amendment sanctuary.”

The resolution was proposed in response to tighter virus restrictions announced by Northam before Thanksgiving limiting public gatherings to 25 people or fewer, expanding Virginia’s mask mandate to include children over the age of five and prohibiting restaurants from selling alcohol after 10 p.m.

The effort mirrors last year’s “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement, when several counties and cities, including Campbell County, passed measures rejecting new gun-control laws in the commonwealth. Similar to those declarations, Campbell’s “First Amendment sanctuary” status appears to be symbolic.

Campbell County’s measure requests that its sheriff’s department not assist any official, whether it be a state law enforcement officer, federal agent or state health agent, “attempting to enforce the unconstitutional order of the Governor.” The Virginia Department of Health, not law enforcement officers, is responsible for enforcing the policies in the governor’s amended executive order.

A group known as the Virginia Constitutional Conservatives has played a vital role in the latest push to reject statewide guidelines, drafting a template resolution online that proposes bold provisions for constitutional officers to follow.

The template calls for local law enforcement to arrest “any State Police officer, State Health Agent, or Federal Agent” who attempts to enforce the governor’s order and for commonwealth’s attorneys “not prosecute the unconstitutional mandates prohibiting the people’s right to peaceably assemble.” Failure to follow these clauses “will result in the immediate removal of County funding.”

While the resolution approved by Campbell County’s board excluded the language threatening the budgets of sheriff’s departments and local prosecutors, it was crafted by using the template from the Virginia Constitutional Conservatives. Starting with quotes from sections of Article One of the Constitution of Virginia, both state that Northam’s order limiting gatherings “is clearly in violation of the Constitution of Virginia Article 1 and sections 1 and 12.”

Matt Cline, the supervisor representing Campbell County’s Concord district on the board, amended the language in the resolution that was passed. Cline called Northam’s order another example of government overreach in an interview with 8News, but stressed that the resolution does not mean the county is not taking the coronavirus pandemic lightly.

“The governor’s order restricts the First Amendment and this resolution is in support of the rights of the citizens. Local businesses are struggling, these are real problems, not a political issue,” Cline said Wednesday. “It isn’t right or left, these are real problems, just as covid is real.”

“It’s important to note what’s not in this resolution as well,” he continued. “It doesn’t say be cavalier, or that covid is a hoax. And it doesn’t say don’t wear a mask. It’s the responsibility of the individual.”

Campbell, a rural county near Lynchburg with an estimated population of nearly 55,000, has had an average of 16 new coronavirus cases per day in the last week, according to the state’s health department. Its weekly average number of daily cases per 100,000 residents is 29.9, a figure that is slightly higher than Virginia’s average.

Since the pandemic hit in March, the county has reported 1,230 total cases and 13 COVID-19 deaths.

Northam’s authority to introduce and impose virus restrictions has been challenged in several lawsuits since the start of the pandemic, however most have been defeated in court as state code gives the governor of Virginia broad powers when an emergency is declared. The Democratic governor addressed Campbell County’s decision in a press conference Wednesday on the commonwealth’s plans to distribute the initial COVID-19 vaccines.

“I expect that law enforcement will be part of the solution here. And I would remind everybody in Virginia that we are not the enemy,” Northam said. “This should not be divisive. It shouldn’t pit one group of Virginians against another. The enemy is the virus, and so we all need to work together to attack the virus, not each other.”

This story will be updated.

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