News & Politics

Legal Battles Over Drive-In Church Service Bans Continue Even After $500 Fines Dropped

Law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Nov. 7, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Update below.

Police in Greenville, Miss., ignited a national scandal by slapping $500 fines on Christians who attended a drive-in church service where they sat in their cars with the windows up and listened to their pastor over the radio. The mayor and city council had banned drive-in services, citing the coronavirus pandemic — despite the fact that such services could not possibly spread the virus. After national religious freedom law firms and the Department of Justice (DOJ) under President Trump got involved, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons finally dropped the ban and said parishioners would not have to pay the tickets.

Other cities have continued their bans on drive-in church services, however, inspiring more legal battles. At least one lawsuit against Simmons is ongoing, and there are at least five other cases involving bans on drive-in church services across the country.

The idea that any mayor would expressly ban drive-in church services in order to combat the coronavirus is terrifying. 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.

While the most egregious ban has been dropped, the battle over this unconstitutional practice continues to rage across the country. Even in Greenville, it’s not over yet.

1. Greenville

On Wednesday, April 8, Greenville police infamously ticketed attendees at the drive-in service Pastor Arthur Scott held at Temple Baptist Church. The very next day, police stalked another drive-in service at King James Bible Baptist Church involving Pastor Charles E. Hamilton, Jr.

“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Scott said.

“What is harmful about people being in their cars listening to preaching with their windows up?” Hamilton asked.

The religious freedom law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is representing Scott, while First Liberty took up Hamilton’s case. First Liberty sent a demand letter to Simmons, urging him to drop the ban — which he eventually did. ADF filed a lawsuit, however, claiming that the mayor had violated Scott’s First Amendment rights.

“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” Ryan Tucker, director of the Center for Christian Ministries at ADF, said in a statement. “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.”

While Simmons’ decision to drop the ban — and the $500 fines — is laudable, it does not erase the fact that he trampled on the rights of his constituents in this blatant fashion. In fact, he gave an infuriatingly flimsy excuse for the ban during his press conference announcing that he would drop it. He claimed that Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) had not issued guidance on the issue, but he had gone far beyond Reeves’ orders with this ban.

2. Chattanooga

While Gov. Bill Lee (R-Tenn.)’s executive order permits drive-in church services and Andy Berke, the Democratic mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., initially permitted them as well, he issued a new order on April 9 expressly stated that “drive-in services … even in their cars with the windows rolled up, for any length of time will be considered a violation of our shelter-in-place directive.”

Pastor Steve Ball of Metro Tab Church had asked Berke if drive-in services were permitted, and the mayor had said that they were. He had planned a drive-in service for Easter Sunday, but following the April 9 order, he canceled the service. Last Thursday, ADF filed a lawsuit challenging the ban.

“City officials go too far when they single out churches for punishment, preventing them from alternate versions of worship during this pandemic that are specifically designed to comply with health and safety recommendations from both state and federal authorities,” Tucker, the director of ADF’s Center for Christian Ministries, said in a statement. “It makes no sense that you can sit in your car in a crowded parking lot or at a drive-in restaurant in Chattanooga, but you can’t sit in your car at a drive-in church service. Chattanooga’s ban is unnecessary and unconstitutional, and that’s why we have filed suit.”

3. Ventura County

Ventura County, Calif., has issued an order preventing drive-in church services, along with many other restrictive practices. The order prohibits “all gatherings, no matter the size, outside of places of residences with limited exception.” Faith-based organizations are permitted to facilitate livestream or other virtual communications so long as there are no more than seven people in the gathering.

The law firm Tyler & Bursch, working with the National Center for Law and Policy Advocates for Faith & Freedom, sent a demand letter to the county on behalf of Godspeak Calvary Chapel Pastor Rob McCoy and Michael Barclay, a Jewish rabbi at Temple Ner Simcha (and a contributor to PJ Media).

McCoy intends to hold drive-in church services, complying with all CDC and social distancing guidelines. He also intends to hold communion services on the first Sunday of every month, only allowing 10 congregants in the sanctuary at a time and complying with CDC guidelines.

Under Jewish religious obligations, a Torah service requires a quorum of ten Jewish adults physically present in the synagogue to carry out the service, but the county’s order only allows a maximum of seven people to livestream a religious service. Barclay also cannot livestream services because electrical power cannot be used during the Jewish Sabbath. He intends to hold services in person while abiding by CDC guidelines on social distancing.

The Tyler & Bursch demand letter claims the county order violates both the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment to the Constitution. RLUIPA prevents the government from using a land-use restriction in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.

Although California dropped its ban on drive-in church services on Friday, this case is ongoing.

4. Louisville

Greg Fischer, the Democratic mayor of Louisville, Ky., interpreted an order from Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.) as banning drive-in church services. U.S. District Court Judge Justin Walker granted a temporary restraining order blocking Fischer from enforcing his ban on such services. First Liberty had requested the restraining order.

In an opinion with his ruling, Walker called the ban “dystopian,” in addition to “beyond all reason” and “unconstitutional.”

“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.

In a statement on the case, Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty, explained that his law firm advises churches abide by Centers for Disease Control guidelines on social distancing in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — but insisted that Fischer’s ban went far beyond these guidelines.

5. Kentucky

Although Walker granted the restraining order, Gov. Beshear dispatched the Kentucky State Police to issue notices to churches that their attendance at a drive-in service was a criminal act. Police were instructed to record the license plates of all vehicles in the parking lot at Maryville Baptist Church and to send letters to all vehicle owners that they must self-quarantine for 14 days.

The Christian law firm Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit on behalf of Maryville Baptist Church, claiming Beshear’s actions violated Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and parishioners’ First Amendment rights to free speech, assembly, and the free exercise of religion.

“Churches have a constitutional right to meet and the First Amendment does not disappear during a crisis. Governor Beshear has clearly targeted this church and violated these church members’ religious freedom. The only reason these people were given notices is because they were in a church parking lot. Had they parked in the nearby shopping center they would not have been targeted. This is clearly Gov. Andy Beshear’s discriminating against churches,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement.

On Friday, Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R-Ky.) filed an amicus brief opposing Beshear’s ban on drive-in church services.

6. Riverside County

Tyler & Bursch also sent a demand letter to the leaders of Riverside County, Calif., who had banned drive-in church services on April 6. The law firm had sent a letter on behalf of Pastor Tim Thompson and 412 Church of Murrieta, asking for legal guidance on such services. The county responded by banning drive-in church services.

“Multiple people can gather at, in, and around a liquor store, ice-cream shop, grocery store, post office, carry-out restaurant, bed and breakfast, but not in or around a church. Why is it impermissible for a church to hold a drive-in service complying with all CDC and County guidelines while a grocery store, hardware store, or liquor store can have a large amount of people in the same location?” asks the demand letter, sent last Thursday. “Several cars can be lined up in a Starbucks drive-thru but not in a church parking lot.”

While the order restricts the number of people at a normal religious service to two, it allows a maximum of ten people at a funeral. “The Order even allows faith leaders to minister to a maximum of ten people at a funeral service. It is ironic; however, that they can minister to the dead but not the living,” the letter adds.

Update: California dropped its ban on drive-in church services on Friday, so Tyler & Bursch dropped the Riverside County case.

It would appear that drive-in church services represent an excellent and innovative way for congregations to worship together and stop the spread of the coronavirus. Yet at least in these six cases, state or local governments have prohibited them on false pretenses. Even after the DOJ has gotten involved, the battles continue.

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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