On Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) stepped up to defend the rights of Christians who were slapped with $500 fines for attending a drive-in church service last Wednesday in Greenville, Miss. Although Mayor Errick Simmons did not force the Christians to pay the fines, he stood by his arguably unconstitutional ban on drive-in church services. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) represented the church’s pastor in a lawsuit and the DOJ filed a statement of interest in that suit.
In a statement on the filing, Attorney General William Barr defended the social distancing and stay-at-home orders issued across the country, but he insisted that the coronavirus emergency does not abrogate Americans’ fundamental rights.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity,” he insisted. “For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”
He noted that Temple Baptist Church and its pastor, Arthur Scott, hold drive-in worship services “in which congregants listened to their pastor preach over their car radios while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot with their windows rolled up.”
“The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open. The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing,” Barr explained.
Indeed, the ban on drive-in services seems particularly egregious, considering that Greenville allows citizens to eat at drive-in fast-food restaurants.
“In Greenville, you can be in your car with the windows rolled down at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car with the windows rolled up at a drive-in church service. To target churches that way is both nonsensical and unconstitutional,” Ryan Taylor, director of the Center for Christian Ministries at ADF, said in a statement after the DOJ filing. “This is why we have asked the court for a temporary restraining order to immediately halt enforcement of the city’s order while our lawsuit moves forward, and it’s also why the U.S. government has filed a statement of interest that urges the court to rule in the church’s favor.”
When police handed out $500 tickets to Christians at Temple Baptist Church, Pastor Scott recalled, “One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church.”
In a statement on Monday, Mayor Simmons dropped the fines, but he insisted that the ban on drive-in services did not violate the Constitution.
In addition to ADF’s lawsuit on behalf of Temple Baptist Church, the religious freedom law firm First Liberty had sent Simmons a demand letter, urging him to retract the order. First Liberty represents the pastor of a nearby church that has also experienced police harassment over drive-in services.
The Department of Justice is right to get involved in this important case. While Simmons has the right to issue broad-based orders to protect public health in this crisis, he does not have the right to single out churches for undue restrictions that do not protect public health, and that is exactly what he did with this ban on drive-in services.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.