UPDATED: Churches Are Fighting Tyrannical Government for the Right to Celebrate Easter While Social Distancing

Image credit Pete Linforth, Pixabay.

Update below.

As Western Christians are preparing to celebrate Easter, arguably the central high holiday of the Christian faith, state and local governments have issued orders preventing various kinds of services that would not spread the coronavirus. Religious freedom law firms have issued demand letters and filed lawsuits to restore religious freedom before Easter. At least one of these lawsuits has already resulted in a restraining order protecting drive-in worship services.

“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” Ryan Taylor, director of the Center for Christian Ministries at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said in a statement. ADF filed a lawsuit against the leaders of Greenville, Miss., for preventing drive-in church services where parishioners worship from their cars in a church parking lot, isolated from one another.

“In Greenville, you can be in your car at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car at a drive-in church service. That’s not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional, too,” Taylor explained.

ADF is representing Temple Baptist Church, which hosted a drive-in service on Wednesday. During the service, eight uniformed police forced parishioners to expose themselves by rolling down their windows. The police slapped Christians with a $500 fine for attending service virtually, listening to Pastor Arthur Scott over the radio.

“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Scott told Todd Starnes. “I told them to get some more tickets ready because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.”

Charles E. Hamilton Jr., pastor of the nearby King James Bible Baptist Church, raised the alarm on Facebook. “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?” he asked.

Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) issued a stay-at-home order on April 1. He encouraged churches not to hold drive-in services, but he insisted that “the government does not have the right to shut down places of worship. … Mississippi is not China, and it never will be.”

Yet Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons announced a ban on drive-in services on Tuesday. He issued an executive order stipulating that “all church buildings” must be “closed for in person and drive in services.”

While Reeves’ stay-at-home order classified churches essential, Greenville “unilaterally and unlawfully reclassified churches as ‘non-essential’ businesses and operations—a designation reflected in a chart posted on the City’s website,” ADF’s lawsuit states. Contrary to Reeves’ order, the city expressly banned “drive-in services.”

“In fact, according to the City, you can buy a hamburger or sit in your car at a drive-in restaurant with your windows rolled down, but you can’t sit in your car at a drive-in church service with your windows rolled up.”

The ADF lawsuit explains that a ban singling out drive-in church services violates the First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, free speech, and freedom of assembly, along with the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The lawsuit also claims that the city’s ban violates Gov. Reeves’ executive orders.

“The City’s church-closure order targets, discriminates against, and shows hostility towards churches,” the lawsuit claims. “Prohibiting or punishing Plaintiffs’ religious speech does not serve any legitimate, rational, substantial, or compelling government interest.”

The lawsuit requests a restraining order and an injunction prohibiting Greenville from enforcing its order, particularly on Easter Sunday.

ADF is far from alone in fighting for the right to worship on Easter, even in the city of Greenville. On Thursday, the religious freedom law firm First Liberty sent Mayor Simmons a demand letter, urging him to retract the order. First Liberty represents Hamilton, 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.

After First Liberty’s announcement, police turned out in force to block King James Bible Baptist Church’s drive-in service that evening. Hamilton responded by preaching Romans 13, condemning a tyrannical government that does not exercise its God-given authority to punish evil, but rather punishes good. He also cited Acts 5:26-29, when Peter refuses a command to stop preaching the name of Jesus, saying, “We are to obey God rather than man.”

On Friday, First Liberty filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order against Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, Ky., who also issued an order preventing churches from holding drive-in services.

“Protecting basic religious freedoms is essential, in both good times and bad,” Roger Byron, senior counsel at First Liberty, said in a statement. “We continue to advise religious institutions to follow the CDC’s guidelines and avoid mass gatherings, but the mayor’s prohibition on drive-in church services goes beyond those guidelines and violates state and federal law.”

Like Temple Baptist Church and King James Bible Baptist Church in Greenville, On Fire Christian Church in Louisville has been hosting drive-in church services in its parking lot during the coronavirus crisis, and plans to host a drive-in church service on Easter Sunday. During the services, cars are parked six feet apart, parishioners remain in their cars with windows no more than half open. Security personnel are present to ensure proper spacing.

Yet earlier this week, Mayor Fischer announced, “We are not allowing churches to gather either in person or in any kind of drive-through capacity. … We’re saying no church worshiping, no drive-throughs.” At the same time, Fischer has permitted drive-in restaurant pick-ups. He has even allowed retail shopping centers to continue their operations, with cars gathering in parking lots and people walking in the parking lots and aisles of the stores.

“Mayor Fischer has been engaged in a public campaign to intimidate churches and their congregants from hosting or attending drive-in church services for Easter 2020,” First Liberty’s lawsuit explains. “Defendants’ targeting of religious adherents from gathering in a manner consistent with governmental social distancing guidelines while permitting similar (and at times even more intimate) social interaction to continue unabated in retail and commercial establishments, flies in the face of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Sections 1 and 5 of the Kentucky Constitution, and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act.”

First Liberty’s demand orders have succeeded in pressuring cities to stop targeting churches.

Police also harassed Christians worshiping on Palm Sunday in Chincoteague Island, Va. Police have served a summons to Kevin Wilson, pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Church, charging him with violating Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.)’s order prohibiting worship services with more than 10 people in the building. The pastor could go to jail for one year and be fined $2,500 for violating the order, and each parishioner may face such a sentence for attending service in-person on Easter.

Wilson’s crime? He allowed sixteen people, standing six feet apart, to worship in the 293-person sanctuary.

The Christian law firm Liberty Counsel is representing Wilson.

“Lighthouse Fellowship Church protected the health and safety of the 16 people by requiring them to be spread far apart in the 293-seat sanctuary. But because the church had six more people than the 10 allowed by Gov. Ralph Northam, the pastor is being criminally charged,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement. “There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template that works for every church. We need to balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people. Using an arbitrary number of 10 people for every church is not the answer.”

Some Christians have continued to worship in crowded sanctuaries, violating both the spirit and the letter of coronavirus mitigation restrictions. Yet in each of these four cases, churches have followed social distancing guidelines in order to stop the spread of the virus. They have engaged in civil disobedience, opposing unreasonable restrictions that arguably violate the Constitution.

My church, the Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Va., has resorted to holding entirely virtual services online. Churches should follow social distancing guidelines and attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus, following Jesus Christ’s command to love our neighbors by protecting them from the pandemic.

Yet the government cannot single out churches for special restrictions, and churches have every right to defend their religious freedom when the government tramples upon it. It is tragic that Christians have to fight for the right to celebrate Easter even while they practice social distancing. Even so, our ultimate hope is not in the justice of the Constitution but in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Whether we celebrate at home watching a video livestream, in our cars at a drive-in service, or spaced six feet apart in a sanctuary, we remember Jesus’s Resurrection and look forward to our ultimate redemption. No tyrannical government restrictions can kill the spirit of Easter.

Update April 11 4:15 p.m.: Court grants restraining order.

On Saturday, U.S. District Court Judge Justin Walker granted a temporary restraining order preventing Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer from blocking On Fire Church from holding drive-in services on Easter.

“The Mayor’s decision is stunning,” Judge Walker wrote. “And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.” Therefore, his order prevents “Louisville from enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire. Unless the Court enters this Temporary Restraining Order, the members of On Fire will suffer irreparable harm. The government plans to substantially burden their religious practice on one of the most important holidays of the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday. But Louisville ought not to view the limits of this injunction as a green light to violate the religious liberty of non-parties.”

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.