Mississippi city lifts drive-in church ban

shutterstock 62853307 Novelty sign in church parking lot. | Sean Ealy Photography/Shutterstock

The mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, has withdrawn a controversial executive order that levied fines on residents if they attended a drive-in church service.

On Wednesday, April 15, the City of Greenville announced on its website that "all drive in and parking lot church services are allowed as long as families stay in their cars with windows up and adhere to all state and federal social distancing guidelines." 

Mayor Errick D. Simmons (D) was quoted as saying that he was "pleased to announce that Governor Tate Reeves has responded to my public request for definitive guidance on drive-in and parking lot church services. Thank you, Governor Reeves." 

Gov. Reeves (R) instituted a stay-at-home order on April 3. 

A week prior, on April 7, Simmons issued an executive order instituting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, as well as an order 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 order added that "churches are strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, and any and all other social media, streaming, and telephonic platforms."

On April 8, attendees of a parking-lot service at Temple Baptist Church in Greenville were fined $500 for violating the order. The people ticketed were sitting in their cars, with their windows rolled up, listening to a sermon broadcast on via radio. 

Two days after issuing the order, Simmons met with religious leaders in Greenville, and released a statement saying the ban on drive-in and in-person church services was Constitutionally sound. 

"This is no infringement on the right to religion or right to worship," said Simmons. "Although it impacts on our traditional way of gathering to worship, it does not prevent us from worshipping. We need our pastors and worship leaders to be creative so that people's lives are not at risk. Please post your services on social media, Facebook Live, Zoom, and other platforms and help your neighboring churches do the same."

On April 11, police in Greenville blocked the parking lot of King James Bible Baptist Church, which was attempting to hold an Easter service. 

Both Temple Baptist Church and the King James Bible Baptist Church filed lawsuits against the City of Greenville, arguing that the city had been targeting churches and church goers with the executive order. In the lawsuits, the churches noted that other businesses in the city--such as a Sonic Drive-In, a fast-food chain where patrons are served food while in their cars--are often more crowded than the church parking lots and were not punished. 

Simmons announced on April 13 that the city would not be collecting fines from the churchgoers. 

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest on Tuesday supporting Temple Baptist Church, and saying the city had engaged in discriminatory practices. 

"But even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers," said a statement from Attorney General William Barr. 

"Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity. 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. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens."

Barr added that "As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest." 

There have been two confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 in Greenville, Mississippi, a city of approximately 34,000. There have been 62 confirmed cases in Washington County, where Greenville is located.

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