Last month, First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs, Miss., burned to the ground as the church challenged coronavirus restrictions in court. Graffiti in the parking lot read, “Bet you stay home now, you hypocrites.” The district court ordered the city to stop enforcing its coronavirus restriction and allow the church to have drive-in services. Later, the court also ordered the city to allow the church to meet in person. Despite all that First Pentecostal has been through, however, Pastor Jerry Waldrop still faces prosecution for holding a service on Easter Sunday.
Holly Springs is “continuing to prosecute Pastor Waldrup for violating the initial stay-at-home order on Easter Sunday,” Stephen Crampton, a Thomas More Society lawyer who is representing the church, told PJ Media. “The city is still unrepentant, showing no admission of wrongdoing, no sign of remorse. It looks to me that there are hostile sentiments among the leadership in the city.”
In court, Waldrop testified that on his way to the church on Sunday mornings, he would drive by at least two churches that were meeting in person while the city cracked down on his church. According to Crampton, lawyers for the city “never contradicted that testimony.”
“My suspicion is they would say, ‘We come to a church when we receive a complaint and we received a complaint about First Pentecostal and received no complaints about the other churches.’ That excuse is pretty lame if the other churches are en route to First Pentecostal,” Crampton argued. “The police probably had to drive by those churches as well.”
Sadly, when the court ordered the city to stop applying unconstitutional restrictions on the church, the order did not work retroactively. Yet the city is in the absurd position of actively prosecuting a pastor for violating an order that has been deemed illegal, a pastor whose church burned down due to arson.
“It looks like bad faith prosecution here. It’s malicious,” Crampton said. He told PJ Media his legal team is considering suing the city for violating Waldrop’s First Amendment rights through malicious prosecution, echoing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018).
“I’ve reached out to the prosecutor and the city attorney and begged them to drop the charges and they refuse,” he said.
The local order restricting churches came after Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) clearly said the government had no legal authority to ban church services. The governor had 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.”
As Crampton noted, Reeves even designated churches an essential operation. “The state order clearly states you’re allowed to do local orders provided you don’t infringe on essential operations,” which included churches.
“So what was the city doing, disrupting an easter service of all things and continuing to prosecute the pastor?!” he asked. “You have no basis for the prosecution, and yet they still want to claim that they’re the do-gooders here and we’re the problem somehow because we insist on our constitutional rights.”
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.