The Central Bible Baptist Church in New York, which had to discontinue its drive-in worship services after being threatened by the Massena Police Department that a fine of up to $1,000 would be imposed, on Friday challenged the claim that drive-in services violate Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 Executive Orders.
“You are mistaken in your assertion that church ‘drive-in’ worship services are prohibited under New York’s current emergency orders and could result in fines,” wrote The Rutherford Institute, a national, nonprofit civil liberties organization, to Police Chief Adam J. Love on Friday on behalf of the church.
The Chief of Police warned Pastor Samson Ryman, who held drive-in worship services on May 3 with 23 worshipers in 18 vehicles, that his church violated the law and he could be subject to prosecution for holding the drive-in services and would face a fine of up to $1,000.
“Although federal and state governments have adopted specific restrictive measures in an effort to decelerate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the current public health situation has not resulted in the suspension of fundamental constitutional rights such as religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right of assembly,” the letter said.
Police “threats … are grounded in a misunderstanding of the law and a misapplication of the Governor’s Executive Orders, which severely chills their exercise of the fundamental right to practice their religion,” it added.
The church said that “even if the governor’s executive orders could be construed to apply to church gatherings, application of the gatherings restriction to the church’s proposed drive-in worship services would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee to free exercise of religion.”
After the May 3 drive-in service, Ryman expressed his joy on Facebook. “What a gorgeous day the Lord gave us for our first drive-in service! Seeing all our members with smiling faces. Oh, how we’ve missed worship and fellowship with our church family! What a great day! I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord,’” he wrote.
The following weekend, he wrote on Facebook, “CANCELED due to NY COVID executive orders.”
Pastor Ryman had previously been warned against holding an open-air service, but he was not expressly prohibited from conducting the drive-in services.
The church has explained that for drive-in services, attendees would drive to the church and park in the parking lot, remaining in their vehicles. Pastor Ryman would then conduct the service from a porch attached to the church, using a low-power FM transmitter that attendees could tune into with a radio. At all times during the worship service, Ryman would remain well over 6 feet from other church attendees.
“In the hopes of avoiding formal legal action, I would strongly advise you to withdraw your threat to enforce the Executive Orders’ restrictions on gatherings to Central Bible Baptist Church’s drive-in services and allow them to proceed as planned,” The Rutherford Institute told the police chief.
“The Constitution forbids the government from singling out churches for restrictions that are not imposed on other entities,” Keisha Russell, counsel for the nonprofit group First Liberty, remarked earlier, responding to Chemung County, New York, Executive Christopher Moss’ announcement on Facebook Live that drive-in services were prohibited. “Churches that creatively and safely serve their communities should be applauded, not targeted.”
At a March 27 press briefing, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio singled out Christian and Jewish congregations and threatened that agents would shut down their houses of worship if they held in-person services. “A small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance even though it’s so widespread,” he said.
The Democrat mayor further warned that if the congregations refused to disperse, the city would “take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
Tony Perkins, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Christian conservative organization Family Research Council, criticized de Blasio’s comments on Twitter. “De Blasio’s incendiary & unconstitutional threat to permanently shut down churches and synagogues must be retracted or corrected if it was a misstatement,” Perkins wrote in a tweet. “This type of religious hostility is what fuels non-compliance because it reveals a motive beyond public safety.”