Democrat Mayor Errick D. Simmons of Greenville, Mississippi, has changed course and is now permitting drive-in church services after police officers issued $500 tickets to parishioners last Wednesday.
After churches filed federal lawsuits in the city, Simmons said in a Facebook news conference Wednesday that people may attend drive-in church services as long as they keep their windows rolled up.
Simmons also said he would allow churches to have up to 10 people in their buildings for worship services that are broadcast, but added that they must follow social distancing and health guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“On Friday, we had 48 cases. Today, we have 62 cases here in the city of Greenville. This is real,” Simmons said. “This is serious and this is a pandemic that is endangering all of our lives.”
Simmons said he had called on Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to issue guidance on how his stay-at-home order impacts church services, and the governor answered that call by holding a conference call with mayors on Wednesday.
“The governor today has answered that call and provided definitive guidance in regards to drive-in services,” Simmons said. “The governor stated today, for the very first time, that drive-in church services where families stay in their cars with windows up are safe.”
“In the city of Greeneville, the council will look at its order entered on April the 7th,” he continued, adding that the order was made based on the data available at that time. “All decisions that we make are data-driven, but more importantly based upon state and federal mandates that we receive at the time.”
The city drew national headlines after it issued tickets to people attending drive-in church services last week on grounds that they violated the April 7 order.
The order banned all in-service and drive-in church services as long as Reeves' stay-at-home order was in effect, even though the governor never permitted or suggested there should be a ban on church services.
The next day, tickets were issued to members of Temple Baptist Church for attending a service Wednesday night in which people sat in their cars with the windows up in the church’s parking lot listening to the sermon via broadcast on an FM frequency radio.
One attendee of the church service told news station WREG3 that everybody in attendance received a ticket.
The church filed a lawsuit on Monday represented by the conservative legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, arguing that the April 7 order violates their religious rights protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
At the time, Simmons claimed that drive-in services can be considered a health violation. He explained during his Wednesday news conference that the city received on April 3 a guideline from the Mississippi Department of Health stating that many COVID-19 cases are “specifically linked to church gatherings.”
“We all have seen across the country where folks have had church services and pastors themselves have lost their lives,” Simmons said. “Congregants have contracted the disease and transmitted it to 30, to 40 people that go to church gatherings.”
“We were very cautious, given a series of things that we looked at, including the bed space that we have in our hospital, the number of ICU beds, the number of known violations we had of folks doing in-person service over the CDC 10-people guideline. And also folks that were doing drive-in [services] and getting out of their cars.”
The Associated Press reports that Reeves accused Greenville of being an “overburdensome government” that put “more people at risk” as police officers made attendees of the drive-in service roll their windows down to receive tickets.
At the news conference on Monday attended by more than 25 people, Simmons said he would not force attendees of the church to pay the $500 tickets but maintained the order. However, he continued to call on Reeves to provide more clarification on church services.
Simmons also said he detested accusations made on national television by King James Bible Baptist Church pastor Charles E. Hamilton that he targeted churches, according to the Delta Democrat-Times.
The King James Bible Baptist Church filed a lawsuit this week against the mayor’s order after the order intimidated the church from going through with plans for drive-in services. Backed by the First Liberty Institute, the lawsuit says the mayor’s order singled out churches for law enforcement.
After Simmons defended his April 7 order on Monday, the U.S. The Department of Justice intervened by filing a statement of interest in favor of Temple Baptist Church’s lawsuit against the city.
The federal agency said 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,” the DOJ’s statement of interest reads.
Late Saturday evening, a spokesperson for Attorney General William Barr stated that action would be taken if officials singled out religious organizations to enforce social distance rules.
On Tuesday, Reeves thanked Barr for his “strong stand in support of religious liberty.”
“The government cannot shut down churches. Mississippi is not China,” Reeves stressed in a tweet. “This is still America. We will help support this any way we can.”
Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty Institute, praised Simmons’ decision to allow drive-in services.
“Pastor [Charles] Hamilton looks forward to being able to continue to meet the spiritual needs of his congregation while also abiding by public health guidelines and the governor’s policy,” Dys said in a statement.