In the aftermath of a week in which the First Amendment’s assurance that Americans would be allowed the free exercise of religion was tested as rarely before in the nation’s history, Attorney General William Barr has announced that the federal government will be investigating limits placed on church attendance amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In many states, social distancing guidelines have voluntarily limited church attendance, while in others, government has actively banned services.
The limits on church attendance, coming as they did just before Easter, led to flashpoints across America where churches and secular authorities came in conflict.
— JoeMyGod (@JoeMyGod) April 12, 2020
Indiana’s Governor has at the last minute ordered all church buildings shut in the state, “placing restrictions on churches that do not apply to other organizations, groups of people, and establishments.” https://t.co/EsHXybyQGz
— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) April 10, 2020
“Santa Ana Police Dep crack down on the annual tradition of cars cruising on Easter Sunday” … “People may not leave their homes for … drive-up services or to pick up non-essential items such as pre-packaged Easter eggs or bags filled w/ candy & toys.” https://t.co/cIH24xX35A
— Jim DeMint (@JimDeMint) April 10, 2020
The conflicts led to a Saturday tweet from Kerri Kupiec, director of communication and public affairs for the Department of Justice.
“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services,” she said. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”
During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!
— KerriKupecDOJ (@KerriKupecDOJ) April 12, 2020
One flashpoint took place in Greenville, Mississippi, where the Rev. James Hamilton of the King James Baptist Church tried to hold a drive-in service only to have police break it up, according to Fox News.
“We were abiding by the CDC guidelines,” Hamilton said. “Members of the church were inside their cars, had their windows up, and I was preaching the Word of God. So no one was outside, and also we had cars at a distance.”
He recorded video of the service being dispersed by police., and it was shared on Twitter.
Video from Pastor Hamilton of King James Bible Baptist Church in Greenville, MS. Church tried the “drive-in” method of holding services & were targeted due to the Mayor issuing an order prohibiting such services. Watch as an officer tells the Pastor that his rights are suspended. pic.twitter.com/zLdT6Qd8ew
— Nick Short ?? (@PoliticalShort) April 11, 2020
Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, argued that the city’s order “is just massively unconstitutional.”
“It targets churches in a way that it targets no other group,” he said. “Cars in parking lots are fine. It’s only a crime if the cars in the parking lot are at the church parking lot.”
Some churches flouted the rules anyhow.
Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, held an in-person service, according to WJTV-TV.
“We are sitting at distance as the mayor encouraged us to do,” Pastor Jesse Horton said. “We’re gonna be careful, we’re gonna be safe, we’re not gonna be foolish.”
“I just do believe that on this Sunday morning, the church ought to be open, praising God,” Horton said, noting that everyone attending was provided with a mask and sanitizer.
“We got it all in the sanctuary, we got that covered,” he said.
Horton said the church made the exception for Easter but will resume online worship next week.
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