It’s one thing for authorities to bust up in-person church services when worshippers are gathered under one roof and ignoring social distancing guidelines. It’s quite another to do it when they’re doing it at a drive-in church.
That’s what one Mississippi town did — and it led to a lawsuit from the church. Now, Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department is joining in, on the church’s side.
According to Fox News, the DOJ is joining a lawsuit by Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, after police gave $500 tickets to congregants who refused to leave a drive-in service.
A DOJ “statement of interest” published by Fox News on Tuesday concluded the actions taken by police “strongly suggest that the city’s actions target religious conduct.”
The Justice Department, the statement said, has an interest in intervening in “important issues of religious liberty in courts at every level, from trial courts to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
“Today, the Department filed a Statement of Interest in support of a church in Mississippi that allegedly sought to hold parking lot worship services, in which congregants listened to their pastor preach over their car radios, while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot with their windows rolled up,” Barr said in the Tuesday statement, according to Fox.
“The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open.”
“The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing,” Barr added.
And that’s one of the key issues in these cases — even though the free exercise of religion and the freedom of assembly are protected under the First Amendment, churches actually receive stricter scrutiny than other “essential” establishments.
In Greenville, for instance, Mayor Errick Simmons said the city government would ban drive-in services until Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’ shelter-in-place order was lifted.
“Churches are strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, and any and all other social media, streaming and telephonic platforms,” the mayor’s office stated in an April 7 news release.
However, the governor’s order didn’t say anything about drive-in churches — and, in fact, Reeves thanked the Trump administration for entering the fray on the side of Temple Baptist Church.
“Thank you to the Trump administration and Attorney General Bill Barr for this strong stand in support of religious liberty,” Reeves wrote in a Twitter post Tuesday. “The government cannot shut down churches. Mississippi is not China. This is still America. We will help support this any way we can.”
Thank you to the Trump administration and Attorney General Bill Barr for this strong stand in support of religious liberty. The government cannot shut down churches. Mississippi is not China. This is still America. We will help support this any way we can. https://t.co/a2cc5s3oXe
— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) April 14, 2020
On Monday, according to The Associated Press, Simmons announced the fines would be waived, but the church’s lawsuit is continuing.
Given that Mississippi isn’t necessarily known for suffocating the religious freedom of Christians, it’ll probably not shock you when I tell you things are worse in other states.
In New Jersey, for instance, churches are closed but print shops are open. New Jersey is also one of many states that have closed places of worship but have kept liquor stores open. While there’s a purely utilitarian reason for this — you don’t want to deal with an influx of detoxing alcoholics experiencing delirium tremens in the intensive care unit just as you need those beds for coronavirus patients — there’s no right to booze baked into the U.S. Constitution.
While there might be issues with a church that doesn’t offer social distancing and continues to meet indoors, there’s a huge difference in a church where people are in their freaking cars.
“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’s statement read.
“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true more so than ever during this difficult time. The pandemic has changed the ways Americans live their lives,” it continued.
“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 drive-in restaurants in Greenville, which were apparently allowed to operate as drive-in establishments with patrons having their windows at various levels of ajar-ness (ajar-itude?), is key to the case.
The church’s complaints “strongly suggest that there are no such differences [with restaurants] and that the city should allow the church to hold its drive-in services,” the DOJ’s statement of interest declares.
“Under strict scrutiny, the city has the burden to demonstrate that prohibiting the small church here from holding the drive-in services at issue here — services where attendees are required to remain in their cars in the church parking lot at all times with their windows rolled up and spaced consistent with CDC guidelines — is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest,” it states. “As of now, it seems unlikely that the city will be able to carry that burden.”
“If proven, these facts establish a free exercise violation unless the city demonstrates that its actions are neutral and apply generally to nonreligious and religious institutions or satisfies the demanding strict scrutiny standard.”
In his statement on Tuesday, Barr reiterated that message.
“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,” he said, according to Fox.
“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true more so than ever during this difficult time. The pandemic has changed the ways Americans live their lives,” he added. “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 case of in-person church services in other contexts is still a thorny issue; while potentially protected under the Constitution, someone’s attendance at one of these service, absent significant social distancing, evinces a certain level of daftness. That said, the courts can sort out the brambles there. It’s hard to see thorns with people staying in their cars at a church service unless you’re determined to find thorns.
Also, a similar case has already been ruled on by a federal judge, who struck down a similar ordinance. After Louisville, Kentucky, police pulled a similar stunt with a drive-in service at On Fire Christian Church after an order from the mayor, according to Fox, U.S. District Judge Justin Walker ruled that the city was enjoined from “enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire.”
It’s difficult not to expect a similar win for Temple Baptist Church. It’s not just recondite legal reasoning here, but common sense. The coronavirus can pass easily, but not from one car with closed windows to another car with closed windows.
If any other city, county or state sees fit to try this kind of crackdown on Christian churches, Barr’s DOJ shouldn’t hesitate to file of a statement of interest.
These bans on drive-in church services do nothing to stop the spread of the disease. But they should serve as a canary in the coal mine to Americans concerned with their First Amendment freedoms.
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