The Greenville City Council has issued a new order that lifts the city’s unconstitutional ban on drive-in church services during the coronavirus crisis in the wake of a lawsuit that Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed on behalf of a local church. The church voluntarily withdrew its request for a temporary restraining order against the city Wednesday in light of the city’s changed position.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, Temple Baptist Church v. City of Greenville, agreeing with the church that the ban cannot single out churches while allowing similar types of activities elsewhere, such as drive-in restaurants.
“Public officials are right to care about public health and safety during the coronavirus crisis, but they are wrong when they treat churches more harshly than others in government orders related to it,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “We commend Greenville for dropping its unconstitutional ban, which prohibited drive-in church services but allowed similar types of activities, such as eating at drive-in restaurants. That overreaching ban wasn’t necessary to protect health and safety. It only served to unnecessarily violate Americans’ freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
ADF attorneys representing Greenville’s Temple Baptist Church filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi to challenge the city’s ban, which Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons originally claimed was consistent with a statewide shelter-in-place order issued by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. The governor’s order, however, includes no such ban and identifies churches as an “essential business or operation.” Reeves also made public statements saying that drive-in church services were acceptable under his order.
The lawsuit came about after members of Temple Baptist Church drove to the church’s parking lot on a Wednesday night and stayed in their cars, as the church instructed, with their windows rolled up while listening to Pastor Arthur Scott preach a sermon over a low-power FM radio frequency from a microphone inside the empty church building. Despite the fact that no one left their cars, which numbered fewer than 20, eight uniformed police officers arrived at the service and issued tickets of $500 per person for violating the mayor’s ban.
The church has been conducting drive-in church services in an effort to respect social-distancing recommendations from federal, state, and local authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.