City of Greenville, Miss. Reverses Course, Will Now Allow Drive-In Church Services ‘With Windows Up’

GREENVILLE, Miss. — Erick Simmons, the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, has decided to allow churches to hold drive-in services after receiving guidance from Gov. Tate Reeves, who has no problem with gatherings where residents stay in their cars.

“All drive-in and parking lot church services are allowed as long as families stay in their cars with their windows up and adhere to all state and federal social distancing guidelines,” the City of Greenville posted to social media on Wednesday.

Simmons participated in a conference call with Reeves and other mayors yesterday, in which the governor outlined his position on the matter. They mayor had requested a definitive answer from Reeves on Monday during a press conference in which he defended the City and asserted that its actions were being taken “out of context.”

He also said on Wednesday that the City had been praying for guidance, and cited Scripture, which states in 2 Chronicles 20:15, “[T]he battle is not yours but God’s.”

According to the Delta Democrat-Times, Simmons outlined that the City had acted upon remarks from the Mississippi Department of Health (DoH), which had said that COVID-19 cases were arising out of church gatherings.

“We were very cautious given a series of things we looked at, including the bed space we have at our hospital, the number of ICU beds we have, the number of known violations we had with folks doing in-person services over the CDC 10 people guideline and also folks who were doing drive-in, quite frankly, in the parking lot but getting out of their cars,” Simmons stated in a Facebook live video, according to the outlet.

“Today, given the definitive guidance from the governor, the City of Greenville will allow drive-in and parking lot services in the city so long as families stay in their cars with windows up and all state and federal social distancing guidelines, mandates and standards should be adhered to and complied with during this time,” he said.

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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 April 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.”

Read the press release in full here.

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.

Read the complaint in full here.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) also intervened, filing a Statement of Interest with the court.

It 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.”

The DOJ 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.’”

Attorney General William Barr additionally issued a statement vowing to protect religious freedom.

“[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,” he wrote.

Gov. Reeves thanked Barr for his intervention on Tuesday, remarking on Twitter, “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.”

However, Simmons asserts that it is a “mischaracterization” to say that the city council shut down churches. He said that the order simply “modified them,” resulting in churchgoers needing to adapt to having services a different way.

He identified himself as a devout Christian during Wednesday’s press conference and said that his church has been meeting telephonically, citing Scripture on several occasions throughout the event.

“By no means did the council target churches,” Simmons said. “You still can worship. It is just a way to adjust our behavior.”

“We want to make sure that if we listen to God and we listen to Romans [13], that we need to obey the law of the land, especially when we’re not telling folks to do anything against God,” he contended. “We’re just trying to adjust and be smart. … [T]here’s a thin line between faith and foolishness.”

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