A Mississippi church fighting to keep its doors open amid the coronavirus pandemic burned to the ground early Wednesday morning in what is being investigated as a suspected arson.
First Pentecostal Church in the northern Mississippi community of Holly Springs is described as a total loss after it burned down in a middle-of-the-night blaze.
WATN-TV reported firefighters arrived at the church after receiving a call about the fire at around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.
A message spray-painted on concrete outside of the church seemed to make mention of the congregation’s fight to worship freely as the church fought a government-imposed stay-at-home order.
”Bet you stay home now you hypokrits,” the painted message said.
“Bet you stay home now you hypokrits (sic)” was spray painted in front of the church. Investigators believe the North Mississippi church was set on fire intentionally. Read more here —> https://t.co/3qqW31VS5p pic.twitter.com/wAj0OmBsU9
— Jessica Jaglois WMC (@JessicaJagsTV) May 20, 2020
WATN-TV reported that Jerry Waldrop, who has been the pastor at First Pentecostal Church for more than 30 years, had filed a lawsuit against the city of Holly Springs in April to prevent city officials from disrupting services at the church.
While Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves deemed church services “essential” in his stay-at-home order, local police had disrupted an Easter Sunday service and later a mid-week Bible study.
City officials also adopted a nightly curfew last month, which police warned they would enforce.
“To the citizens of Holly Springs, please be advised that the Holly Springs Police Department will be enforcing an 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew for our city that was voted on by our Mayor and Board of Alderman on April 2, 2020. Therefore if you are not out for essential reasons you should remain in your homes,” the Holly Springs Police Department wrote on Facebook on April 2.
The church, whose lawsuit sought a temporary restraining order against the city, has said that three police officers disrupted an April 10 gathering at the church.
In the legal complaint, Waldrop said he held outdoor services that were dependent on the weather, but the church was seeking protection of its First Amendment rights to gather and worship freely.
Holly Springs City Attorney Shirley Byers commented on the disrupted event, stating that between 35 and 40 congregants were inside the church, and officers issued a citation, according to WLBT.
Byers said the city did not consider churches to be essential businesses in the city’s original stay-at-home order, though on April 24, a federal judge ruled that the “First Amendment right to Free Exercise of religion is sufficiently important that some reasonable accommodations must be made for it.”
That same day, the city adopted a measure permitting drive-thru services, and the congregation eventually met the following Sunday from their vehicles.
Waldrop told WLBT after the fire that the church had no known enemies, though investigators believe the blaze was set by an arsonist.
“We’ve tacked our brains and we have no idea,” he told the outlet. “No enemies that we know of. We don’t know anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this.”
The church was being represented in its lawsuit by Chicago-based Thomas More Society, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit, national public interest law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty.”
Legal documents filed on behalf of the church complained, “The local Walmart store routinely houses gatherings of dozens and dozens of people, as does the Cash Savers store and the Dollar Tree store, yet Defendant has taken no action whatsoever against any of these entities.”
The Thomas More Society released a statement to WATN-TV about the loss of First Pentecostal Church’s building.
“The Thomas More Society is saddened by the news that a fire destroyed First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs last night. To hear that the authorities are treating this as arson is distressing and we pray that the perpetrators of this terrible event will be brought to justice. Our most sincere prayers are with the people of this church and their pastor,” attorney Stephen Crampton, senior counsel at the organization, said.
“They have been grieving the inability to gather as a congregation since the COVID-19 pandemic stay home orders forced the closure of their church home and now they must grieve the loss of this spiritual home, their place of worship,” Crampton added.
Multiple local agencies are joined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the investigation into the fire’s origin.
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