DOJ intervenes after Miss. church members ticketed $500 each for attending drive-in service

The sign at Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss.
The sign at Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss. | Facebook/Temple Baptist Church

Days after Mississippi Pastor Arthur Scott filed a lawsuit against the City of Greenville for issuing multiple members of his congregation $500 tickets for attending a drive-in service, the Justice Department intervened Tuesday in support of the church.

Attorney General William Barr argued that the city "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."

"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."

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The Department filed a Statement of Interest to back Temple Baptist Church, which held a drive-in church service last Wednesday night, where people sat in their cars with their windows up in the church’s parking lot and listened to the pastor's sermon broadcast on a low-power FM frequency radio.

Scott had reportedly called Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons' office to inform them that they were holding the service on Wednesday "no matter what," according to the Delta Democrat-Times.

The police arrived and began issuing tickets. 

Longtime church member Lee Gordon, told the publication that the church had been using the radio broadcast for about three weeks when the police intervened even though they were following social distancing guidelines.

“The police were respectful and just doing their job,” Gordon said. “They asked us to leave first and those who stayed got a ticket.”

While Barr said following directions issued by state and local authorities regarding social distancing is the best path to stop the spread of the coronavirus and that "the constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances," he stressed that "discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers" is still prohibited.

"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," Barr stated.

The Department argued in its statement of interest that "the city has the burden to demonstrate that prohibiting the small church here from holding the drive-in services at issue here—services where attendees are required to remain in their cars in the church parking lot at all times with their windows rolled up and spaced consistent with CDC guidelines—is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest. As of now, it seems unlikely that the city will be able to carry that burden."

During his Easter Sunday service broadcast on Facebook, Scott argued that many of his members are older adults with limited access to smartphones, the internet and social media platforms like Facebook to worship online the way many other churches do. And that’s the reason why they chose to do the drive-in services as a safe and creative way to stay engaged.

“The reason we do this is to reach those without smartphones," the pastor said. "Most of our folks, a lot of our congregation is an older congregation and so they have no access to the internet. We care about reaching all people with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and in particular those in our very own backyard.” 

He told his congregation that he filed a lawsuit on Friday with the help of religious liberty advocate Alliance Defending Freedom.

“We filed suit to protect our fundamental freedoms. Our fundamental right to worship our Lord and Savior. This has absolutely nothing to do with monetary gain. This has everything to do with our freedom. Nothing more, nothing less,” Scott said.

Attorney General William Barr testifies about the Justice Department's FY2020 budget request before the House Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 09, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Attorney General William Barr testifies about the Justice Department's FY2020 budget request before the House Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 09, 2019 in Washington, D.C. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Now I do not take such action lightly but my prayer is the city will rescind its ban on drive-in services without further court intervention and that other churches facing similar situations, which there are, both here and across the United States, will also have the freedom to worship today, so please be in prayer for our government officials. Please pray for those in positions of power across this nation. For our president. For our governor, for our mayor, for our city council and for all those helping during this difficult time.”

Simmons announced on Monday however that the ban on drive-in services during the coronavirus pandemic would not be lifted, prompting a response from the ADF as well.

“It’s disappointing to see the city of Greenville continue this unconstitutional, unwarranted ban on drive-in church services," ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker said in a statement. "This church has taken on creative ways to minister to people in its community without access to social media. The city’s order is baseless, and so we intend to continue aggressively pursuing our case against it in court.” 

Scott said that he was very encouraged by the support his church has been getting from Christians around the country and thanked them.

“We’ve had calls from Hollywood, California, all the way from there to New York, to Florida, to Colorado. We’ve had Christians, preachers, missionaries, Christian works of all kinds,” he said, noting they have been on the phone “from morning till night.”

After sending out a warning on Saturday, Barr reaffirmed on Tuesday that the "Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions."

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