- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Justice Department on Tuesday sided with a Mississippi church that filed a lawsuit after local police broke up a “drive-in” service and slapped the automobile-bound worshipers with $500 tickets.

The Justice Department said the city of Greenville, Mississippi, had imposed coronavirus-related restrictions on the church that it had not applied to secular entities.

Attorney General William P. Barr said intervention was warranted to protect Americans’ right to exercise their religion freely.

“The pandemic has changed the ways Americans live their lives,” he said in a statement. “Religious communities have rallied to the critical need to protect the community from the spread of this disease by making services available online and in ways that otherwise comply with social distancing guidelines.

The Justice Department said Greenville was not applying coronavirus regulations evenly, unfairly restricting a religious service that complied with government guidelines.

“According to the city ‘ALL’ businesses and industries deemed essential by state and federal orders’ may continue operations … and the state has designated churches such as the one here as essential,” the Justice Department wrote in a federal court filing. “Nevertheless, the city barred the church from holding services even if the church adheres to CDC and Mississippi COVID-19 guidelines for essential operations.”

Justice Department lawyers said targeting the religious service “strongly suggests that the city’s actions targeted religious conduct.”

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons that the Justice Department’s action won’t pressure him to reverse the prohibition on drive-in church services. Such restrictions during the pandemic are necessary to “save and protect lives,” he added.

“The [city] council received many calls about violations of in person church services and drive in church services because church members got out of their cars,” he said in a statement. “Until the Council reconsiders or changes the current order, it stands. People are dying.”

Mr. Simmons last week issued an executive order banning in-person and drive-in church services to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The order was invoked the next day to disperse churchgoers from Temple Baptist Church’s drive-in service, which was held in the church parking lot.

Attendees were required to stay inside their cars with the windows rolled up, listening to music and a sermon on an FM radio station.

The Greenville Police Department broke up the service and wrote up tickets that carried a $500 fine.

Temple Baptist Church sued the city and claimed the mayor trampled on its rights to freedom of speech and religious expression.

Justice Department lawyers agreed. It said the city’s ban unfairly targets religion because motorists can sit at drive-in restaurants with their windows down, but not a church service with their windows up.

“If proven, these facts establish a free exercise violation unless the city demonstrates its actions are neutral and apply generally to non-religious and religious institutions or satisfies the demanding strict scrutiny standard,” the filing read.

Mr. Simmons said at a press conference Monday that ticketed churchgoers won’t have to pay their fines. He also said the incident was blown out of proportion, alleging the pastor of another local church of slinging mud against him.

“This smear campaign full of lies about my beliefs are unfounded,” he said. “To publicly state this mayor is targeting a church is unacceptable and reprehensible.”

Charles E. Hamilton, the pastor of King James Bible Baptist Church, also in Greenville, had lambasted Mr. Simmons for the crackdown on drive-in services in an appearance on Fox News.

The Justice Department’s actions come as pastors around the country launch legal assaults on state and local stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus crisis. Some religious leaders argue their churches should be considered essential.

A group of pastors in California filed a lawsuit over the state’s stay-at-home order, saying it “specifically targeted people of faith.”

In Kentucky, On Fire Christian Church sued Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and city after he blocked drive-in religious services. A federal judge sided with the church, saying the city could not prohibit drive-in services.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit law firm focused on religious and civil liberties, is representing Temple Baptist Church.

ADF praised the Justice Department for its support of the Mississippi 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,” the organization said in a statement. “To target churches that way is both nonsensical and unconstitutional.”

“We appreciate the DOJ’s support for our position that this type of government action isn’t necessary to protect health and safety. It only serves to unnecessarily violate Americans’ freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”

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