Justice Department defends Mississippi drive-in church service

"Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens," said Attorney General William Barr.
Image: Attorney General William Barr speaks during a press conference in Washington.
Attorney General William Barr speaks during a press conference in Washington on Jan. 13, 2020.Win McNamee / Getty Images file

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By Pete Williams

A small Mississippi Church got some major support Tuesday from the federal government in its lawsuit against the city that tried to shut down a drive-in church service over coronavirus concerns.

The Justice Department intervened in a dispute between Temple Baptist Church and the city of Greenville after police broke up an April 8 service. According to the lawsuit, church members gathered in a parking lot, never got out of their cars, kept their windows rolled up, and listened to Pastor Arthur Scott who spoke over a low-powered FM radio transmitter.

When police officers arrived, they knocked on car windows, asked for identification, and issued citations that carried a $500 fine. But nearby, the church said in its lawsuit, drive-in restaurants were serving customers who arrived in cars with their windows rolled down.

The Justice Department said such unequal treatment amounted to an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of religion.

"Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens," said Attorney General William Barr.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has designated churches as essential, allowing them to operate as long as they follow state and federal health guidelines. The city of Greenville, however, has barred churches from holding either in-person or drive-in services as long as the governor's shelter-in-place order remains in effect.

Greenville's mayor, Errick Simmons, said the orders restricting church services were imposed for the sake of safety.

"People have been calling the office all week telling us there are churches still meeting," he told the Delta Democrat Times. "These are people from out of town who are concerned their older parents are still going to these meeting places."

A federal judge in Kentucky last week blocked the mayor of Louisville, the state's largest city, from prohibiting drive-in church services.

"An American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter," said U.S. District Court Judge Justin Walker. "That sentence is one that this court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion."

Tuesday's legal filing in the Mississippi case was the first by the Justice Department in defense of a church during the pandemic. The federal government has declined to defend mega-churches that continue to invite worshipers to gather inside for services.