Just before Easter Sunday, a judge has ruled against a Russell County man’s request to allow groups of 10 or more people to gather in church.

Last month, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued executive orders banning groups of 10 or more people to gather. His orders specifically included religious gatherings. As a result, churches across Virginia stopped holding services in church and began to host live streamed services online.

On Thursday, Judge Michael Moore denied retired teacher Larry Hughes’ appeal for an injunction in a lawsuit filed in Russell County Circuit Court. The suit claims the governor’s executive orders infringes on his religious freedom.

Hughes filed the suit in advance of Easter Sunday in order to attend services at church. The suit claims that it’s unfair to effectively shut down religious gatherings but allow other businesses that have been deemed essential to stay open.

“The equities do not weigh in [petitioner's] favor based on this pandemic,” the judge said, according to a news release from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. “And to say that this injunction to be granted would be in the public interest is not defensible. So the court is going to deny the request for temporary injunction.”

Like other recent proceedings, Thursday’s hearing was held outside of the courtroom via phone.

Northam was listed as a defendant in the suit. A spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said the governor will continue to make decisions, consistent with science and medical expertise, to protect public health.

Herring said he was pleased to successfully defend Northam’s executive order.

“Science tells us that social distancing is the most important thing we can do to save lives and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that’s exactly what these orders are doing,” Herring said. “We are all having to sacrifice right now to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe, and our win today maintains these crucial safety measures.”

T. Shea Cook, a Richlands-based attorney, represents Hughes and called Northam’s action a “dangerous precedent.”

“We’d hoped to be able to get some relief prior to the Easter weekend, but ultimately we knew it was going to be difficult,” Cook told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’re talking about a fundamental right that — in a time of crisis — has been eroded.”

Cook said the case will move forward, just not with the injunction before Easter that they had asked for.

As of Thursday afternoon, 4,042 cases of COVID-19 have been reported Virginia. Russell County had one case, the Virginia Department of Health said.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch contributed to this story.

rsorrell@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2531 | Twitter: @RSorrellBHC | Facebook.com/robertsorrelltn

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