A federal judge has affirmed the right of a Pentecostal church in Mississippi to worship without fear of being shut down again or threatened by local police, allowing the congregation to hold drive-in services beginning Sunday.
In a federal lawsuit filed by the conservative legal group, Thomas More Society, on behalf of the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills issued the order against the city of Holly Springs, whose officers disrupted and shut down a midweek Bible study, 10 days after disrupting the congregation’s Easter worship service and issuing its pastor, Jerry Waldrop, a citation.
“These were outrageous violations of these parishioners’ rights,” the group’s Senior Counsel Stephen Crampton said in a statement. “On both occasions, Holly Springs law enforcement personnel ignored the fact that all church members present were practicing social distancing and complying with all applicable health requirements.”
Crampton continued, “Bible study attendees were threatened with criminal citations for violation of Holly Springs’ stay home order. Due to the threats and the citation of pastor Waldrop, the church members were fearful of holding services on Sunday and exercising their constitutionally protected rights.”
While the statewide stay home order classes “religious entities including religious and faith-based facilities’ as essential businesses or operations,” the Holly Springs’ stay home order deemed churches nonessential, Crampton pointed out.
“Clearly, the state order preempts the municipal order, which was selectively and prejudicially enforced against the church,” he said. “The local Walmart store routinely houses gatherings of dozens and dozens of people, as does the Cash Savers store and the Dollar Tree store, yet Defendant has taken no action whatsoever against any of these entities.”
The lawsuit argued that the city of Holly Springs violated the church members’ rights to religious freedom, free speech, freedom to assemble, and rights of due process as constitutionally guaranteed under the First and 14th Amendments, and also claimed violation of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“Holly Springs made a rather poor decision to draft an ordinance which simply grouped ‘churches’ together with other ‘non-essential’ businesses such as ‘barber shops,’ ‘restaurants’ and ‘liquor stores,” Mills noted in his ruling. He added that the city’s “vague prohibition of ‘any gathering’” was “problematic.”
The order also stated that neither Holly Springs, nor its police force, would interfere with the church’s drive-in service on Sunday.
Recalling the disruption during the Easter Sunday service, Waldrop told OneNewsNow, “When we dismiss here, we’re all going to Walmart and go in,” he told the congregation. “I want to prove the point that they’re not enforcing the law.”
They could all get into Walmart. But he was once again singled out. “The mayor had entered the building and he pulled me aside and said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He was telling me we couldn’t be in the store.”
Walmart didn’t object to their presence. “[The authorities] never really told us what we did that was offensive or out of order. As we went out the door, the store manager showed up and he said, ‘Look, we can’t make y’all leave. Y’all don’t have to leave the store.’”
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons also said prior to Easter that drive-in services were prohibited.
Pastor Arthur Scott of Temple Baptist Church filed a lawsuit against the city of Greenville for issuing multiple members of his congregation $500 tickets for attending a drive-in service.
The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest to back Temple Baptist Church, arguing 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.”
The office of the U.S. Attorney General had said action would be taken against officials who single out religious organizations to enforce social distancing rules in place to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus.
“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services,” Barr spokeswoman Kerry Kupec wrote on Twitter the day before Easter Sunday. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”