Police in Greenville, Miss., issued $500 tickets to Christians who gathered in a church parking lot to worship together in the safety of their cars on Wednesday. The Christians at Temple Baptist Church intended to honor coronavirus social distancing restrictions while gathering to worship God, but the police cracked down, regardless.
Charles E. Hamilton Jr., pastor of King James Bible Baptist Church, raised the alarm on Facebook Wednesday evening.
“The police in Greenville, MS went to Temple Baptist Church this evening and gave everyone there a ticket for $500 because they had a drive in service,” Hamilton posted. “Everyone was in their cars with the windows up listening to pastor Arthur Scott preached on the radio. What is harmful about people being in their cars listening to preaching with their windows up? Christians do you all see what is going on?”
Parishioner Chris Owens shared a video of a police officer giving him a citation for attending the drive-in worship service. In the video, Owens explains that the church wanted to comply with social distancing rules while still meeting for worship. The officer issues the citation, regardless.
“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Temple Baptist Church Pastor Arthur Scott told Todd Starnes. “I told them to get some more tickets ready because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.”
The elderly pastor said that as many as 25 cars were in the parking lot for the service and everyone in the cars was ticketed. Scott has pastored the church for 45 years.
“The police officer said I might go to jail,” Scott added. “If it means going to jail and if it takes that for me to keep preaching, I’ll be glad to go to jail.”
“The government does not have the right to shut down places of worship,” the governor said. “If you start taking people’s rights away, very rarely does the government ever give them back to them.”
He encouraged churches not to meet, but would not enforce a rule.
“Mississippi is not China, and it never will be,” Reeves insisted.
Earlier, the governor had acknowledged that some churches were holding drive-in services, allowing cars to park outside the sanctuary to have socially distant prayer and listen to a pastor’s message on the radio. Reeves said he does not believe the government has the power to shut down churches, but he discouraged drive-in services.
“It’s just hard to overcome our natural tendency to get out and say hello,” he said last week.
Yet Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons, a Democrat who has endorsed Joe Biden, and the city council banned churches from hosting drive-in services on Tuesday.
“The City of Greenville put in place an Executive Order that orders all church buildings closed for in person and drive in church services, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter In Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves. Churches are strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, and any and all other social media, streaming, and telephonic platforms,” the order read.
Mayor Errick D. Simmons and Greenville City Council Issue Orders on Church Services and City Curfew GREENVILLE, Miss. (April 7,2020) In an effort to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Mayor Simmons and City Council have issued two new executive orders on church services and city wide curfew. These two executive orders come after Governor Tate Reeves’ Shelter In Place Order and the Mississippi Department of Health guideline stating, “Because of recent COVID-19 cases specifically linked to church gatherings, it is vital that Mississippians not attend in-person church services at any church or other type of facility. Services, weddings, and funerals are leading to greater COVID-19 transmission.”Church ServicesThe City of Greenville put in place an Executive Order that orders all church buildings closed for in person and drive in church services, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter In Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves. Churches are strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, and any and all other social media, streaming, and telephonic platforms.City CurfewThe City of Greenville put in place an Executive Order that orders a city wide curfew effective immediately from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. daily, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter In Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves.
Posted by City of Greenville, Mississippi – Government on Tuesday, April 7, 2020
On Thursday, the religious freedom law firm First Liberty sent Simmons a demand letter, urging the mayor to retract the order. First Liberty represents Hamilton, pastor of the nearby King James Bible Baptist Church, who is also hosting drive-in services on Easter Sunday. The demand letter claims that Simmons’ order violates the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion by singling out churches for unusual restrictions.
“Religious liberty is not suspended during a pandemic. Americans can tolerate a lot if it means demonstrating love for their fellow man, but they will not—nor should not—tolerate churchgoers being ticketed by the police for following CDC guidelines at church. This has to stop now,” Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty, told PJ Media in a statement on Thursday.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.