Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Chattanooga church filed suit in federal court Thursday to challenge the city’s ban on drive-in church services. Originally, the city and its mayor, Andrew Berke, tailored its COVID-19 restrictions to a statewide order that allows for drive-in church services but abruptly reversed course to specifically to prohibit them.
On April 9, Berke posted a message aimed at churches on the city website and on his official Facebook page regarding the order, stating that “drive-in services…even in their cars with the windows rolled up, for any length of time, will be considered a violation of our shelter-in-place directive.” Neither the mayor nor the city has been willing to back off on the amended directive, despite the U.S. Department of Justice’s strong concern over the overreaching bans, as expressed in a statement of interest that the agency filed in a similar ADF case in Mississippi.
“City officials go too far when they single out churches for punishment, preventing them from alternate versions of worship during this pandemic that are specifically designed to comply with health and safety recommendations from both state and federal authorities,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “It makes no sense that you can sit in your car in a crowded parking lot or at a drive-in restaurant in Chattanooga, but you can’t sit in your car at a drive-in church service. Chattanooga’s ban is unnecessary and unconstitutional, and that’s why we have filed suit.”
Earlier this month, Pastor Steve Ball of Metro Tab Church asked the Chattanooga Police Department whether drive-in church services were permitted in the city. Ball was told that a drive-in church service would not violate the city’s order. And another pastor in Chattanooga told Ball that he discussed holding a drive-in church service directly with the mayor, who indicated at that time that it was permissible.
Based on this information, Metro Tab Church began planning to hold drive-in services on Easter Sunday that would use a short-range FM transmitter to broadcast the pastor, from the front of the church, to cars in the parking lot. No person-to-person contact would be allowed, the church building would be closed, and congregants would be instructed to remain in their vehicles. The production team inside and outside the building would be limited to less than 10 people.
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On April 9, the city and the mayor banned drive-in church services, so the church cancelled its plan for a drive-in Easter service but intends to begin drive-in services on April 19.
As the lawsuit explains, “Despite being on notice from both the DOJ and [the church’s] counsel that its drive-in church ban is unconstitutional, the City issued another statement on April 14, 2020, stating that ‘The Mayor is required to reissue these orders every seven days and continues to do so until it is deemed safe to lift this order. This means: . . . No drive-in church service.’”
The city published a statement on enforcement of its stay-at-home order which states, “If the business and responsible party refuse to adhere to the Order, the responsible party could be issued a citation or other enforcement mechanisms.”
The complaint filed in Metropolitan Tabernacle Church v. City of Chattanooga, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, asks the court to rule the city’s ban unconstitutional and bar its enforcement for running afoul of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment and state law. Nathan Kellum, one of more than 3,100 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel in the case on behalf of the church.