A Mississippi mayor on Monday insisted he had not interfered with local churches’ efforts to hold services amid the coronavirus outbreak and asked for greater clarity from the governor on the matter.
Mayor Erick Simmons, speaking on the steps of Greenville City Hall, said the city’s order banning church gatherings of more than 10 people will stand, even if such services are held in a drive-in or parking lot fashion.
Mr. Simmons and his city of roughly 30,000 found itself at the center of an Easter controversy last week when authorities issued summons at one service and showed up in force to shut down another at local Baptist churches. Since then, Mr. Simmons said he and his family have received death threats that he called “incomprehensible, hateful and divisive.”
“These incidents have been taken out of context, and have been a misrepresentation of the council and this mayor,” he said, stressing repeatedly he is a man of faith who has consulted with local preachers and sought their support.
“This is not a time to play politics, especially with these unnecessary attacks and false narratives,” Mr. Simmons said.
It was unclear how many people were in attendance at the conference, broadcast live on Facebook, and whether they practiced social distancing.
The council voted 4-1 on April 7 to ban all meetings of more than 10 people, and Mr. Simmons said that included church services as, he believed, Gov. Tate Reeves had intended to include in his April 2 statewide shelter-in-place rules.
Last Wednesday, officers handed out $500 tickets to a handful of people who were in their cars at a drive-in service at Temple Baptist Church. The following night, officers showed up in several vehicles to shut down a drive-in service at King James Baptist Church.
While city employees managed to have the fines vacated, Pastor Charles Hamilton of King James Baptist had insisted on holding services, which Mayor Simmons on Monday called “a provocation.”
At his daily press conference on April 8, Mr. Reeves urged pastors to not hold religious services but said he would not mandate that.
That left what seems a situation fraught for showdowns on Easter Sunday, but terrible weather punctuated by lethal tornadoes across Mississippi kept turnout very low.
The First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group representing both King James Baptist and churches in Kentucky, where similar clashes occurred between ecclesiastical and state officials, obtained a federal restraining order there last Friday to allow Easter services.
“These are difficult public health decisions, designed to save lives,” Mr. Simmons insisted, noting Greenville’s population is 70% African-American and COVID-19 has hit the black community in the U.S. especially hard since the new coronavirus first infected people in Wuhan, China, last year.
The mayor’s statement and declaration that his enforced ban on services would stand did not sit well with attorneys for First Liberty, which last week wrote Mr. Simmons urging him to reconsider his position.
“Mayor Simmons was repeatedly pressed about whether churches who abide by CDC guidelines and host drive-in church will face the spectre of the police arriving on the scene to disperse those peaceably assembled in worship,” attorney Jeremy Dys said. “Rather than reassure his churches that this will not happen, the mayor reaffirmed his unlawful order, renewed the city’s commitment to enforcing it, and defended the decision of police to ticket people just because their car sat on a church parking lot.”
“The mayor continues to single out and target the churches of Greenville,” Mr. Dys concluded.