Justice department backs Mississippi church over drive-in services

shutterstock 1642385059 Church parking lot, stock image. | Tim Large/Shutterstock

The Justice Department (DOJ) is supporting a Mississippi church after local authorities fined attendees at a drive-in service during the coronavirus pandemic.  

The DOJ filed a statement of interest on Tuesday in support of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, that held drive-in services where attendees listened to the service on their car radios. The church took the special precautions in response to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended gatherings of fewer than 10 people, spaced at least six feet apart, to halt the spread of the virus.

In its brief, the DOJ argued that the church tailored its services to comply with public health guidelines, and that the city government acted unfairly in enforcing its restrictions on churches but not on other entities such as restaurants serving drive-in patrons.

"In addition to appearing non-neutral, the church's allegations also tend to show that the city's emergency actions are not applied in a generally applicable manner," DOJ stated.

Mississippi's governor Tate Reeves (R) issued a shelter-in-place order requiring citizens to stay at home except for certain reasons, and listed churches as "essential" institutions that could remain open while complying with certain guidelines.

The city of Greenville, however, curtailed drive-in religious services until the governor's order was lifted. On April 8, law enforcement handed out citations to attendees at a Temple Baptist Church drive-in service, with fines of $500.

According to the church's complaint, attendees were inside their cars with their windows rolled up. Member Lee Gordon told the Delta Democrat Times that a nearby SONIC fast-food restaurant was open for drive-in patrons. 

The church said that many members do not have the ability to stream services online, and thus a drive-in service would accommodate far more congregants.  

In addition to the DOJ's brief in the case, Attorney General William Barr issued a statement on Tuesday "on religious practice and social distancing" where he clarified that governments cannot put special burdens on religious practice that they do not also impose upon other activities.

As states and local governments have the authority to enact certain restrictions tailored to a public emergency, "the constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances," Barr said.

However, he added, these regulations cannot impede religious practice while allowing exemptions for other public activities.

"For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings," Barr said. "Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens."

In applying the test of the federal and state Religious Freedom Restoration Act-where a government must prove that its substantial burden on religious exercise furthers a compelling public interest and is the least-restrictive means of doing so-the DOJ said the city's prohibition on drive-in religious gatherings likely fails the test, as it is being less restrictive of other establishments such as drive-in restaurants.

As the church requires attendees to space their cars out beyond federally-recommended social distancing guidelines, and to remain in their cars with their windows up, "it is unclear why prohibiting these services is the least restrictive means of protecting public health, especially if, as alleged in the complaint, the city allows other conduct that would appear to pose an equal-if not greater-risks," DOJ stated.

As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread in the U.S., state and local governments have enacted various restrictions on public activities and gatherings.

Some officials have curtailed public religious services entirely and threatened serious consequences for churches which do not comply.

New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio threatened to close down churches and synagogues permanently if they still held public services. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) said state police would record the license plate numbers of attendees of large religious services over Easter, with local health officials requiring them to self-quarantine for 14 days afterward. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) criminalized certain public gatherings of 10 or more people, which included religious gatherings.

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In Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly (R) initially exempted religious services from the state's limitation of public gatherings to no more than 10 people, but then included religious services in the regulations.

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