Churches around the country are trying to find a plan for their holiest day — Easter — in the midst of widespread coronavirus shelter-in-place rules.
In Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky and elsewhere, many religious institutions are vowing to go forward with some sort of celebration while some elected officials urge them to alter their traditional formats or ditch them all together.
“I am pleading with you to not attend in-person Easter services,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Friday.
The Republican governor’s advice has already been adopted by a number of churches, which have switched to drive-in services in which celebrants remain in their parked cars while a preacher addresses them from the open air or through a low-frequency radio radio microphone. Many governors have carved out “essential” exemptions for such religious gatherings.
Even that, however, may run afoul of the most zealous stay-at-home, social distancing enforcers.
For example, officials in Greenville, Mississippi, are feuding with Baptist pastors there and moved to shut down drive-in services that were held on Holy Thursday, flooding the scene at King James Baptist Church with multiple units.
“This was an intimidating show of aggression toward this African-American congregation that in my opinion nobody in the United States should have to put up with,” said Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty, a nonprofit religious firm representing King James Baptist.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said Friday afternoon the intent of the city’s order was to save lives not infringe upon religious liberty.
“Of course this is no infringement on the right to religion, the right to worship, although it impacts our traditional way of gathering to worship, it does not prevent us from worshiping,” Mr. Simmons said. “We need our pastors and our worship leaders to be creative during this unprecedented time and a lot of churches are doing that.”
First Liberty has written to Greenville authorities, urging them to stand down on Easter and saying they will file federal suit to prevent a shutdown of services. Pastor Charles Hamilton is adamant that he will attempt to celebrate Easter, according to his social media accounts and attorneys.
“If these gatherings were happening in the parking lot of a Walmart among people waiting to shop that would be fine, but at a church it’s not?” Mr. Dys said.
The group, along with attorneys at WilmerHale, also plans to file federal suit on behalf of On Fire Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. In a letter to Mayor Greg Fischer, the lawyers argued it was discriminatory to target drive-in religious services that observed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines.
“Your prohibition of religious gatherings of this type on Easter, regardless of the precautions taken, is not permitted under both federal and Kentucky state law,” the letter read.
As the Mississippi situation shows, a showdown with authorities on Christianity’s holiest day could occur.
In Georgia, Mr. Kemp has stopped short of trying to stop religious gatherings entirely and has praised those holding drive-in or streamed services. On Palm Sunday, however, state troopers handed out reckless conduct tickets to the pastor and four celebrants at the Church of God the Bibleway in Statesboro.
That church’s leaders were still insisting on holding an indoor Easter service, according to reports.