A Mississippi church that filed a lawsuit against a town ban on worship gatherings was destroyed by a fire Wednesday morning that investigators believed was set as an act of arson.
According to local news reports, firefighters responded to a fire at First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs around 2 a.m. on Wednesday. Responders arrived to find the church building engulfed in flames.
Fox 13 reports that investigators found cans of spray paint on the ground with graffiti on the pavement of the church parking lot. The graffiti in the parking lot reads: “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits (sic).”
“We do believe that based on the evidence and what we have seen at the scene and on top of the hill this was an arson,” Marshall County Major Kelly McMillan said, according to the news station.
Pastor Jerry Waldrop, who has pastored the church for over 30 years, told news station WMC5 that it's “hard to wrap your head around the idea that someone may have orchestrated this or done this.”
Waldrop said the church has “no enemies that we know of.”
“We don’t know anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this,” he said.
Waldrop told Fox 13 that he's unsure of what to do because the church building is now destroyed.
“We are going to keep the faith, and we're going to keep doing what we have always done, and maybe not on this location,” Waldrop said. “I'll get with our faithful people, and maybe we'll rent a building or whatever we need to do for the time being.”
In a press conference Wednesday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said he's going to keep track of the arson investigation.
First Pentecostal Church had filed a lawsuit against the city of Holly Springs, which barred worship gatherings as part of its safer-at-home policies enacted to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Although Reeves included houses of worship as essential entities that can be open to more than 10 people in a statewide order, officials in Holly Springs have deemed churches to be non-essential.
Police in Holly Springs previously disrupted an Easter service and a mid-week Bible study at the church and reportedly told attendees they could be slapped with criminal citations.
In late April, a federal judge sided with the church and ruled that its congregants have the right to hold drive-in services. However, the church’s legal push for the right to have full in-person services is still pending.
“If in fact the order in the city of Holly Springs says that church is non-essential and cannot order, then that order is in direct violation of the order that governs the state of Mississippi. Then they should cease and desist said order,” Reeves said in his news conference.
“It is very clear local municipalities can have guidelines that are more strict than the governor’s guidelines, but they cannot have guidelines that directly conflict with what we have put in place. There is a reason that we named churches essential. The reason is that I believe very strongly that the government does not have the right to shut down churches. We have a freedom of religion in this country.”
Reeves said that he's called pastors and asked them not to hold services but stressed that the government can’t tell churches not to meet.
In its lawsuit, First Pentecostal Church was represented by the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law group that is “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty.”
“To hear that the authorities are treating this as arson is distressing and we pray that the perpetrators of this terrible event will be brought to justice,” Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Stephen Crampton said in a statement.
“Our most sincere prayers are with the people of this church and their pastor. They have been grieving the inability to gather as a congregation since the COVID-19 pandemic stay home orders forced the closure of their church home and now they must grieve the loss of this spiritual home, their place of worship."
Crampton told Fox News that the church has also had negative comments come its way on social media.
“There is just a segment that takes issue with the church standing up, and the church just being the church,” Crampton said.
The news of the church’s destruction drew the ire of some Christian leaders online.
“The lower court judge issued a sarcastic and demeaning opinion. The case has been appealed. A few days after this judge’s mean opinion, someone firebombed the church and burnt it to the ground,” Mat Staver, founder of the conservative Christian law group Liberty Counsel, wrote on social media. “And this happened in America! Enough!”
Ken Graves, pastor of the Calvary Chapel in Bangor, Maine, shared a news link on the church fire on Twitter and cited Ephesians 5:14-16.
“Therefore He says: ‘AWAKE, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light.’” Graves wrote. “WALK IN WISDOM See then that you walk CIRCUMSPECTLY, NOT AS FOOLS but as wise, REDEEMING THE TIME, because THE DAYS ARE EVIL.”