Justice Department sides with Christians fined for attending drive-in Holy Week service

Justice Department sides with Christians fined for attending drive-in Holy Week service

The Department of Justice warned a city in a court filing that fining Christians who attended a Holy Week service while sitting in their cars is to “target religious conduct.”

Last week, a small congregation of Christians in Greenville, Mississippi were given citations for $500 each for sitting in their cars, listening to a sermon over their radios. They were approached by police and handed citations informing them that they must pay the heavy fine.

The Democrat Mayor of the City of Greenville, Errick Simmons, had announced orders the day before, April 7, that all church buildings be closed for “in person and drive in church services, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter in Place Executive Order No 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves.” The April 1 shelter-in-place order, however, did not shut down churches.

Chris Owens, a member of the Temple Baptist Congregation, had published a seven-minute video of a police officer writing out and giving him a citation, as police approached other Christians listening to a sermon behind closed windows. As Owens filmed, the voice of pastor Arthur Scott could be heard reminding his congregation that “You can’t be a good Christian and not go to church.”

In his video, Owens contrasted the care he and his fellow Christians were taking during the service to self-distance with the police action. To receive the ticket, Owens had to roll down his window and accept the paper from the police officer’s bare hands.

“I was just given a ticket by a man with no gloves,” Owens reflected afterward. “We were complying 100% with the Governor’s ordinance on Covid-19.”

The Temple Baptist Church filed suit with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in federal district court Friday challenging Mayor Simmons’ April 7 executive order. 

“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. 

“In Greenville, you can be in your car at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car at a drive-in church service. That’s not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional, too.”

The Justice Department, siding with the Temple Baptist Church, stated in its court filing that it became involved in the case because it touched on “important issues of religious liberty in courts at every level, from trial courts to the Supreme Court of the United States,” reported Fox News. 

“This case raises issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to free exercise of religion,” stated the filing.

“The allegations in this complaint strongly suggest that the city’s prohibition of drive-in church services, despite the inclusion of measures to reduce the risk such as requiring people to remain in their cars, are neither neutral nor generally applicable,” the Justice Department continued.

“According to the city, ‘ALL businesses and industries deemed essential by state and federal orders’ may continue operations…and the state has designated churches such as the one here as essential,” the filing added. “Nevertheless, the city barred the church from holding services even if the church adheres to CDC and Mississippi COVID-19 guidelines for essential operations.”

The city “appears to permit citizens to sit in a ‘car at a drive-in restaurant with [their] windows rolled down,’ but not ‘at a drive-in church service with [their] windows rolled up,’” the filing stated. 

Governor Reeves issued Mississippi’s shelter-in-place order on April 1, but refused to shut down churches. 

“Mississippi is not China, and it never will be,” he famously said at the time. 

Instead, he asked church leaders not to hold public Holy Week and Easter Services, and some―like Jackson’s Catholic Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, who banned even the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation―complied. 

Others, including Pastor Scott and Pastor Charles E. Hamilton, Jr. of Greenville’s King James Bible Baptist Church, did not. 

Scott told radio host and columnist Todd Starnes that he had been informed that Simmons wanted to make an example of his church. 

“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Scott said. 

“I told them to get some more tickets ready because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.

Starnes was amazed that this could happen in the heart of the American South

“What’s really disturbing is that this happened in Mississippi, not New York City or San Francisco. This happened in the buckle of the Bible Belt,” he wrote. 

“The mayor and the city council should be removed from office. Any police officer who stepped foot on church property should be fired. And the governor of the state of Mississippi should personally pardon any church member convicted of violating the emergency order.”

According to PJ Media, on Holy Thursday First Liberty Institute, which is representing King James Bible Baptist Church, sent Mayor Simmons a demand letter, asking him to retract the order outlawing church services.

“Pastor Hamilton and KJBBC have rigorously followed the CDC guidelines for the COVID- 19 crisis since it came to Mississippi,” Jeremy Dys, special counsel for First Liberty wrote.  

“However, your recent order prohibiting drive-in services leaves him in reasonable fear that he and his church members will be fined and criminally prosecuted for merely engaging in drive-in church services that fall well within the CDC guidelines. We require Greenville, Mississippi to withdraw the unconstitutional order that, disturbingly, targets religious exercise.”

Simmons rejects the allegation that he has been deliberately targeting churches but, despite waiving the fine imposed on the members of Temple Baptist Church, has not rescinded his order. 

“Mayor Simmons was repeatedly pressed about whether churches who abide by CDC guidelines and host drive-in church will face the specter of the police arriving on the scene to disperse those peaceably assembled in worship,” said First Liberty’s Dys. 

“Rather than reassure his churches that this will not happen, the mayor reaffirmed his unlawful order. The mayor continues to single out and target the churches of Greenville."