News & Politics

DOJ: 'Expect Action' to Protect Churches From Tyrannical Local 'Social Distancing' Orders

Attorney General William Barr appears before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to make his Justice Department budget request, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

On Saturday, Department of Justice (DOJ) spokeswoman Kerri Kupec announced that Attorney General William Barr would take action to protect churches from tyrannical local government orders that destroy their religious freedom.

“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services,” Kupec tweeted. “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!”

This statement follows a week of legal clashes as Democratic mayors have explicitly banned drive-in church services where parishioners remain apart in their cars with the windows up. Police in the city of Greenville, Miss., have slapped worshipers with $500 fines and mobbed a drive-in service, apparently aiming to prevent attendance.

“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Temple Baptist Church Pastor Arthur Scott, whose drive-in service was targeted by police handing out $500 fines on Wednesday, told Todd Starnes. “I told them to get some more tickets ready because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.”

“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 is representing Scott in a lawsuit against the leaders of Greenville. “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.”

On Thursday, police mobbed King James Bible Baptist Church, near Temple Baptist Church, just as Pastor Charles E. Hamilton Jr. was preparing for a service. 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.”

The religious freedom law firm First Liberty filed a lawsuit on Hamilton’s behalf.

First Liberty is also representing On Fire Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., which has also been hosting drive-in church services. Yet Louisville’s Democratic mayor, Greg Fischer, announced that he would ban such services. On Saturday, U.S. District Court Judge Justin Walker granted a temporary restraining order preventing Fischer from carrying out the order.

“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship – and even though it’s Easter,” the judge wrote.

Drive-in services already represent a tremendous concession to social distancing guidelines. In fact, they represent a useful innovation. If parishioners sit in their cars with the windows up, they cannot spread the coronavirus to one another. They can, however, worship together virtually, either by listening to the pastor over the radio or watching him on their phones or laptops. In fact, drive-in services may be safer than a full livestream video option, since neighbors cannot join one another to watch the video together.

As Walker noted, such orders seem dystopian — they are a disgusting abuse of the emergency powers granted to local officials in the coronavirus pandemic. The Department of Justice is right to take action against them.

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