Last Wednesday, churchgoers in Greenville, Mississippi, attended a “drive-in” church service in the parking lot of the Temple Baptist Church, where they all remained in their cars with no chance of breaking the 6-foot policy or the limit on group gatherings. Despite the effort to faithfully adhere to the governor-ordered social distancing measures, the church’s service was “busted up” by eight police officers and the churchgoers slapped with $500 fines.
The reason: While Mississippi’s Gov. Tate Reeves (R) includes church services in his list of “essential” businesses or operations, Greenville’s Mayor Errick Simmons (D) decided that church services are not essential.
In response, Greenville’s Temple Baptist Church, with the help of pro-faith non-profit legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), filed a law suit Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi asking the court to rule the mayor’s ban unconstitutional. In a press release, ADF announced the lawsuit and provided some background on the case:
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Greenville’s Temple Baptist Church filed suit in federal district court Friday to challenge Mayor Errick Simmons’ April 7 executive order that bans drive-in church services until the Mississippi governor lifts a statewide shelter-in-place order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor’s order includes no such ban and identifies churches as an “essential business or operation.”
The lawsuit came about after members of Temple Baptist Church drove to the church’s parking lot on Wednesday night and stayed in their cars, as the church instructed, with their windows rolled up while listening to Pastor Arthur Scott preach a sermon over a low-power FM radio frequency from a microphone inside the empty church building. Despite the fact that no one left their cars, which numbered fewer than 20, eight uniformed police officers arrived at the service and issued tickets of $500 per person for violating the mayor’s ban, which does not apply to drive-in restaurants like the nearby Sonic Drive-In that reportedly often has more cars present than at Temple Baptist’s drive-in services. …
Simmons’ ban “orders all church buildings 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.” Reeves’ order includes no such ban, and he made clear at a press conference prior to issuing the order that municipalities may use their local emergency power in response to COVID-19 so long as it “does not directly conflict with allowing for what the state order says.”
ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker condemned the Greenville government’s both “nonsensical” and “unconstitutional” singling out of churches. “Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” said Tucker. “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.”
In response to severe blowback over his order, Mayor Simmons announced Monday that he has rescinded the fines against the parishioners and portrayed himself as a victim of a “smear campaign.”
“This smear campaign full of lies about my beliefs are unfounded,” said Simmons, which, according to the Delta Democrat-Times, is “a reference to King James Bible Baptist Church Pastor Charles E. Hamilton’s recent appearance on national talk shows, such as Fox News.”
“To publicly state this mayor is targeting a church is unacceptable and reprehensible,” declared Simmons, who insisted that “no officers raided or staked out a church.”
“What we’re asking for is definitive guidance regarding drive-in and parking lot services, that’s what the issue is,” Simmons added.