The coronavirus pandemic has led to a crackdown on social distancing by state and local governments, with churches being a frequent target. Among them is Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, where parishioners attending a drive-up service were recently hit with $500 fines despite remaining in their cars and adhering to CDC social distancing guidelines.
The church has responded with a lawsuit, and on Tuesday, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that the Department of Justice would be backing them up.
DOJ backs church
“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 declared.
“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,” he continued.
“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.”
The Justice Department’s statement of interest says Temple Baptist’s case “raises issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to free exercise of religion.”
It goes on to say, “The allegations in this complaint strongly suggest that the city’s prohibition of drive-in church services, despite the inclusion of measures to reduce the risk such as requiring people to remain in their cars, are neither neutral nor generally applicable.”
“According to the city, ‘ALL businesses and industries deemed essential by state and federal orders’ may continue operations…and the state has designated churches such as the one here as essential.”
“Nevertheless, the city barred the church from holding services even if the church adheres to CDC and Mississippi COVID-19 guidelines for essential operations.” This, the filing contends, represents an impermissible targeting of the church and its members.
Federal judge sides with Kentucky church
Greensville isn’t the only locality to go after drive-in churches: the Democrat mayor of Louisville, Kentucky issued an order banning them last week during the lead up to Easter Sunday.
However, a federal judge shot the move down, calling it something he “never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion.”
In his opinion, Trump-appointee Justin Walker condemned Mayor Greg Fischer’s edict as “stunning” and “unconstitutional” while issuing a temporary restraining order to block its enforcement.