GREENVILLE, Miss. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Greenville’s Temple Baptist Church filed suit in federal district court Friday to challenge Mayor Errick Simmons’ April 7 executive order that bans drive-in church services until the Mississippi governor lifts a statewide shelter-in-place order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor’s order includes no such ban and identifies churches as an “essential business or operation.”
The lawsuit came about after members of Temple Baptist Church drove to the church’s parking lot on Wednesday night and stayed in their cars, as the church instructed, with their windows rolled up while listening to Pastor Arthur Scott preach a sermon over a low-power FM radio frequency from a microphone inside the empty church building. Despite the fact that no one left their cars, which numbered fewer than 20, eight uniformed police officers arrived at the service and issued tickets of $500 per person for violating the mayor’s ban, which does not apply to drive-in restaurants like the nearby Sonic Drive-In that reportedly often has more cars present than at Temple Baptist’s drive-in services.
“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “In Greenville, you can be in your car at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car at a drive-in church service. That’s not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional, too.”
“The whole point of conducting a drive-in church service is to respect the health and safety of others,” added ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus. “No one at Temple Baptist’s service even got out of their cars, and yet they were ticketed $500 per person under the mayor’s baseless ban.”
The church has been conducting drive-in church services for the last three weeks in an effort to respect social-distancing recommendations from federal, state, and local authorities during the coronavirus crisis.
Simmons’ ban “orders all church buildings closed for in person and drive in church services, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter In Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves.” Reeves’ order includes no such ban, and he made clear at a press conference prior to issuing the order that municipalities may use their local emergency power in response to COVID-19 so long as it “does not directly conflict with allowing for what the state order says.”
The complaint filed in Temple Baptist Church v. City of Greenville, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, asks the court to rule the mayor’s ban unconstitutional and bar its enforcement for running afoul of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Nathan Kellum, one of more than 3,100 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel in the case on behalf of the church.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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