‘The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service … that may not operate…’
(Claire Russel, Liberty Headlines) The Justice Department has weighed in regarding a Mississippi church’s lawsuit against a local mayor who banned drive-in church services.
The DOJ sided with Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, in a filing on Tuesday.
Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that Mayor Errick Simmons’s executive order “strongly suggests that the city’s actions target religious conduct” after drive-in service attendees were fined $500 each on Easter Sundays.
“The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services, while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open,” Barr said.
These drive-ins services do not violate the federal government’s social distancing orders, the Justice Department noted, pointing out that congregants remained in their cars while the pastor preached over the car radios.
Yet Simmons continues to insist that these services must end until the state’s shelter-in-place order is lifted.
“The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing,” Barr continued.
Simmons clarified on Monday that the fined residents will not need to pay the $500 tickets, but said the drive-in service ban will stay in place.
Temple Baptist Church’s case against Simmons and the city “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,” the DOJ’s filing states.
The church’s allegations against Greenville might very well be a violation of the free exercise of religion, the DOJ said, which is why the federal government has taken an active interest in its case.
“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,” Barr concluded.