There are no shortage of politicians who view in-person religious services as nonessential and dangerous in the time of a pandemic.
We can argue over the constitutional niceties of this, but you can certainly see their logic: There’s a real danger there, and even if the act of going to church, synagogue or mosque in these times is constitutionally protected, it’s also profoundly foolhardy.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the kind of politician, however, who would ban a drive-in church service.
Meet Errick Simmons, the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. For a mayor in the heart of the Bible Belt, Simmons is unusually unconvinced that religion provides much of a salve in our pandemic-stricken hour, even if that salve is applied from inside your own car.
Simmons banned drive-in services in his town in an April 7 executive order and, when members of Temple Baptist Church refused to break one up, congregants were slapped with $500 fines.
The merits of giving churchgoers $500 citations during a massive economic downturn apparently weren’t questioned by Mayor Simmons until multiple lawsuits, including one supported by the Justice Department, hit the town and the state’s Republican governor intervened.
On Wednesday, Simmons announced he’d come to the conclusion that yes, you could stay in your car without spreading the novel coronavirus.
“Today, given the definitive guidance from the governor, in the city of Greenville we will allow drive-in and parking lot services in the city – so long as families stay in their cars with windows up,” Simmons said in a briefing over Facebook Live.
Simmons, a Democrat (quelle surprise), was referring to a call with mayors across Mississippi hosted by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. During the call, Reeves said that the services “are safe” given the windows are up and social distancing guidelines are followed.
I don’t think the lawsuit from Temple Baptist Church and the Alliance Defending Freedom hurt either, especially since the DOJ decided to get involved on Tuesday.
“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,” Attorney General William Barr said in a news release.
“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.
Barr went on to note that “[e]ven 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.”
Gov. Reeves signaled his support for the DOJ’s move via a tweet:
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 Wednesday, a second lawsuit — this one filed by the First Liberty Institute on behalf of King James Bible Baptist Church — hit Greenville.
Under Simmons’ new executive order, not only can churches meet in a drive-in fashion but up to 10 people can be inside a church at a given time — something that pastors, musicians and the media team will no doubt appreciate. However, the mayor still advised against gathering in person.
“Churches are still strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call and any and all other electronic, social media, streaming telephonic platforms available for the safety and protection of life,” Simmons said.
The question raises itself, however: If Simmons was so sure his original order was both in the interests of his constituents and entirely legal, why not fight the lawsuit?
It’s not as if his administration didn’t have time to consult lawyers on the constitutional ramifications of what he was doing.
Public health experts could have attested to the risk (or arrant lack thereof) of holding drive-in services.
Simmons had a whole eight days between when the executive order was put into place and when it was lifted to examine this policy and whether or not it was legal and beneficial.
One would also hope he’d sought out this advice before the ban was enacted, as well.
So, why lift it now?
I doubt anyone is terribly convinced the Wednesday guidance from the governor was what swayed him, given the fact the governor had made it perfectly clear what he thought about the policy the day before.
Was the ban just a result of unthinking panic? Did Mayor Simmons even care whether this was legal in the first place? Was he under the misapprehension no one was going to challenge his authority during a time of pandemic?
Whatever the case, the drive-in church ban policy was over-officious, unconstitutional and counterproductive from day one. It wouldn’t have saved a single life if it had survived the legal challenges that lay ahead for the city.
This was a waste of police and judicial resources, and one hopes the residents of Greenville remember that waste when Mayor Simmons next appears at the ballot box.
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