News & Politics

Mayor Gives Infuriatingly Flimsy Excuse for Fining Christians $500 Over Drive-In Church Services

Facebook video screenshot of Mayor Errick Simmons.

On Wednesday, Greenville, Miss., Mayor Errick Simmons finally dropped his nonsensical and tyrannical ban on drive-in church services. This ban became a national scandal after Greenville police slapped Christians with $500 fines for sitting in their cars with their windows up in the church parking lot, listening to a pastor preach over the radio. While this practice clearly could not expose parishioners to the coronavirus, the mayor considered it a violation of a stay-at-home order. Religious liberty law firms stood up for the Christians, lawsuits were filed, and the Trump administration got involved.

When Simmons finally dropped the ban, he gave the flimsiest of excuses for what was clearly a tyrannical abuse of his authority during a crisis.

Simmons had defended his order during a press conference on Monday, but he also asked Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) for definitive guidance on the issue, as if he did not know that Reeves had clearly said the government could not 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.” Reeves never suggested drive-in church services should be banned — Simmons and the Greenville City Council took that step on their own, and they cannot pass the buck to Reeves.

In Simmons’ press conference on Wednesday announcing that he had dropped the ban on drive-in services, he acted completely innocent. He just needed “guidance” on the issue.

“I am pleased to announce on a call with Governor Tate Reeves today, with mayors across the state of Mississippi, the governor has answered my call,” he said. “We asked the governor for bold leadership and definitive guidance on this issue of drive-in faith-based services and parking lot services. The governor stated today, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, for the very first time, that drive-in church services where families stay in their cars with windows up are safe.”

Uh huh. Yeah, you totally had no idea drive-in church services were safe. You needed “guidance” from the governor to tell you that germs do not spread through rolled-up car windows. You needed “guidance” to explain that it was an utterly tyrannical usurpation of your power to ban people from engaging in a completely sterile religious activity on the pretext that it would prevent the spread of a virus.

The idea that Pastor Arthur Scott and Temple Baptist Church were causing a coronavirus hotspot by worshiping together over the radio while enclosed in separate cars is not just asinine — it’s unthinkable. The fact that Greenville police gave parishioners $500 tickets — even when those tickets were later dropped — is chilling. The only possible spread of the virus during that church service came when the police forced the parishioners to roll down their windows to get ticketed. In the name of protecting citizens from the coronavirus, police not only penalized a completely safe activity but also introduced the only dangerous moment in that worship service.

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 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 Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the law firm representing Temple Baptist Church, said in a statement.

ADF filed a lawsuit asking a court for a restraining order against Simmons, and the religious freedom law firm First Liberty sent a demand letter to Simmons, urging him to drop the tyrannical order. Yet Simmons did not listen to either of these legal actions. He stood by the order on Monday.

Only after the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in ADF’s case did Simmons have a phone call with the governor, and the governor merely stated the obvious: drive-in services are safe.

Drive-in services are safe? Who would have thought? Was Mayor Errick Simmons seriously dumb enough not to see that? Or had it finally become too large of a national scandal to ignore it any longer?

In some sense, Simmons’ decision to drop the tyrannical order is a victory. But the fact that he ever considered it, much less implemented it and defended it in the face of legal action, is terrifying. He cannot feign ignorance to explain away this act of petty tyranny or shift the buck to Governor Reeves, who never suggested mayors had the power to do this.

The tyrannical order is over, but the national scandal should continue. Americans should not forget the petty tyrants this crisis has brought to light.

Mayor Errick D. Simmons Speaks About Drive In/Parking Lot Church Services

Posted by City of Greenville, Mississippi – Government on Wednesday, April 15, 2020

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

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