WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has filed a Statement of Interest in a lawsuit against the City of Greenville, Mississippi, expressing support for the allowance of drive-in church services in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and opining that the City appeared to “target religious conduct.”
“[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. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity,” Attorney General William Barr also said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions.”
In its Statement of Interest filed with the court, the DOJ noted that 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 does not believe Greenville can meet that burden, outlining that the City prevents churches from holding services even if abiding by CDC and state guidelines.
“[I]t is unclear why prohibiting these services is the least restrictive means of protecting public health, especially if, as alleged in the complaint, the city allows other conduct that would appear to pose an equal — if not greater — risks,” the DOJ said.
It cited, for example, that the City of Greensville “appears to permit citizens to sit in a ‘car at a drive-in restaurant with [their] windows rolled down,’ but not ‘at a drive-in church service with [their] windows rolled up.'”
“The facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the city’s actions target religious conduct,” the department concluded. “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.”
As previously reported, on April 8, police officers in Greenville ticketed more than 20 members of Temple Baptist Church as they tuned in to a radio frequency to listen to their pastor, Arthur Scott. The following evening, members of King James Baptist Church were told by police to leave under threat of citation as their pastor preached in the parking lot.
The City of Greenville had announced via a press release on March 7 that Mayor Errick Simmons and City Council had issued two new executive orders, one of which pertains to church services.
It cited a statement from the Mississippi Department of Health (DOH) as its motivation.
“Because of recent COVID-19 cases specifically linked to church gatherings, it is vital that Mississippians not attend in-person church services at any church or other type of facility. Services, weddings, and funerals are leading to greater COVID-19 transmission,” the DOH said.
However, the City went even further in its executive order, including drive-in services in its prohibition and recommending that residents do church online or over the phone.
“The City of Greenville put in place an executive order that orders all church buildings closed for in person and drive-in church services, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter In Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves,” the press release states.
“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.”
An apparent email from the City also lists churches as “nonessential businesses,” along with dance halls, taverns, movie theaters and tattoo parlors.
On Monday, the religious liberties group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit against the City of Greenville on behalf of Temple Baptist Church, arguing that the prohibition on drive-in services is unreasonable, especially since attendees are required to stay in their cars and the door to the church is locked so that none can even use the restroom.
“[T]he City crafted its church-closure order in direct defiance of the Governor’s Executive Orders 1463 and 1466, which classify churches as “Essential Businesses and Operations” and allow them to remain open to offer religious services like those Temple Baptist seeks to offer here. Simply put, the City went out of its way—to the point of contradicting state law — to shut down Temple Baptist’s small ‘drive-in’ church services. This is unconstitutional,” the legal challenge stated.
However, Greenville Mayor Erick Simmons also held a press conference on Monday, asserting that the “incidents have been taken out of context.”
“This is not a time to play politics. This is not a time to inflame unprecedented and challenging times with unnecessary attacks and false narratives,” he stated.
Simmons said that those who were cited will not be required to pay and called upon Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to provide official guidance on the matter.