A local government mayor who has been sued over his ban of drive-in church services is now allowing congregants to attend such services as long as they comply with federal social distancing requirements.
On April 7, the City of Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons issued an executive order that barred churches from holding in-person or drive-in services until the governor’s shelter-in-place order is lifted. Instead, the order encouraged churches to hold services online, through social media, and other telephonic platforms.
Following the order, a number of churches sued the city and Simmons for allegedly violating the First Amendment of the Constitution and state laws protecting religious freedoms.
While many of the churches are holding services online, the churches—Temple Baptist Church and King James Bible Baptist Church—that sued said that some of their congregants did not have social media or did not know how to connect online. Temple Baptist Church also did not have a website where it could live-stream its services, the church said.
Simmons said on Wednesday that the city arrived at the decision to allow drive-in church services after receiving guidance from Gov. Tate Reeves, who said drive-in church services where families stay in their cars with windows up were safe.
“Today, given the definite guidance from the governor, in the City of Greenville, we will allow drive-in and parking lot services in the city so long as families stay in their cars with windows up and all state and federal social distancing guidelines and mandates and standards should be adhered to and complied with during this time,” Simmons said at a press conference on Wednesday.
He added that next Tuesday the city will discuss what they would do with its April 7 executive order in light of the governor’s guidance.
Reeves had designated churches and other religious entities as an “essential business or operation” that can operate as long as they abide by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) guidelines while issuing a series of directives relating to the state’s shelter-in-place order.
Simmons said in a statement to The Epoch Times prior to the governor’s Wednesday guidance that the city had received many calls about violations of in-person church services and drive-in church services because congregants were getting out of their cars leading to its April 7 order. He also added that the city had been asking the governor to clarify its position on drive-in services following its order.
This comes after a second Greenville church, King James Bible Baptist Church, filed a lawsuit (pdf) against the city and Simmons earlier on Wednesday, challenging the April 7 order.
The church said police officers tried to break up one of its drive-in services on April 9 where congregants remained in their cars through the service. Although the police officers did not ticket the congregants, the church said they were intimidated by the police and fearful that they would eventually be ticketed.
Last week, another Greenville church, Temple Baptist Church, sued the city and mayor in an attempt to block the order. Like King James, Temple Baptist Church broadcasted its service over a low-power FM transmitter to congregants who sat in parked cars outside the church with their windows rolled up. As they listened to the sermon, police officers began issuing $500 tickets to congregants who refused to leave, even though nobody was outside his or her car, that church asserted. Simmons has since rescinded the tickets to the congregants.
The dispute between an individual’s right to exercise religious freedom with local and state officials’ efforts to contain the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus has been a contentious issue in recent weeks as the pandemic continues to reshape American lives. The tension between localities and religious leaders has sparked multiple lawsuits across the country.
Temple Baptist Church’s case attracted the support of the Department of Justice (DOJ), who defended the church in a statement of interest filed on Tuesday.
The department argued that although it’s important for local and state officials to impose restrictions to enforce social distancing, they aren’t allowed to single out church and religious entities for distinctive treatment.
Any government restriction must be neutral, in that any restriction applied on religious activity must be applied the same as to a non-religious activity, Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
“For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings,” he said. “Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”
The DOJ argued in its filing that the facts support the allegations that the City of Greenville had singled out churches for distinctive treatment because churches are “forbidden” to hold “drive-in services,” even as citizens are permitted to sit in a car at a drive-in restaurant with their windows rolled down.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr said.
The department also argued that individual rights under the constitution must be preserved during a public health crisis although the “Constitution does not hobble government from taking necessary, temporary measures to meet a genuine emergency.”
Responding to a question about the two lawsuits, Simmons said he would not be able to speak on them too much as they were still in litigation.
“The issue primarily in both lawsuits, in my reading of them, of course, this is in litigation so I’m not going to speak too much about it, is the drive-through parking lot service,” he said. “Those attorneys are aware that there has not been clear guidance. So we have clear guidance, bold clear guidance from the governor. We are saying now that in Greenville that if people need to go to parking lot services, if they so choose, but have their windows up.”
Jeremy Dys, special counsel for First Liberty Institute, who is representing King James in the suit, thanked the governor and mayor for allowing drive-in church services.
“We thank Governor Reeves and Mayor Simmons for recognizing the importance of protecting religious liberty by clarifying that drive-in church services are allowed during this difficult time,” Dys said. “Pastor Hamilton looks forward to being able to continue to meet the spiritual needs of his congregation while also abiding by public health guidelines and the Governor’s policy.”