A small Mississippi church on Tuesday won major support from the federal government in its lawsuit against the city for trying to shut down a drive-through church service over coronavirus concerns.
The Justice Department intervened in a dispute between Temple Baptist Church and the city of Greenville after police disrupted an April 8 service. According to the lawsuit, church members gathered in a parking lot, never got out of their cars, kept their windows up and listened to Pastor Arthur Scott who spoke through a low-power FM radio transmitter.
When the police arrived, they knocked on car windows, asked for identification and issued tickets with a fine of $ 500. But nearby, the church said in its lawsuit, drive-thru restaurants served customers arriving by cars with their windows down.
The Justice Department said such unequal treatment amounted to an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of religion.
“Religious institutions are not to be designated for particular charges,” said Attorney General William Barr.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, has designated churches as essential, allowing them to function as long as they meet state and federal health guidelines. The city of Greenville, however, has banned churches from hosting services in person or by car as long as the governor’s shelter-in-place order remains in effect.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said orders restricting religious services were imposed for safety reasons.
“People called the office all week to tell us there were still churches meeting,” he told the Delta Democrat Times. “These are people from out of town who fear their older parents will still come to these hangouts.”
Last week, a Kentucky federal judge blocked the mayor of Louisville, the state’s largest city, from banning religious services in cars.
“A US mayor has criminalized the communal celebration of Easter,” said US District Court Judge Justin Walker. “This sentence is a sentence this court never expected to see outside of the pages of a dystopian novel, or maybe the pages of The Onion.”
Tuesday’s legal deposit in the Mississippi case was the Justice Department’s first to defend a church during the pandemic. The federal government has refused to defend mega-churches that continue to invite worshipers to gather indoors for services.