GREENVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi Pastor Arthur Scott, who is suing the City of Greenville after police officers issued tickets to people attending the church’s drive-in service last week, told FOX News on Monday that he hopes the mayor takes action to lift the penalties.
Police shut down the Temple Baptist Church’s drive-in service in accordance with a city ban on large gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit was filed Friday by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of the Temple Baptist Church. The filing challenges Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons’ April 7 executive order that prohibits drive-in church services until a statewide shelter-in-place order is lifted, FOX News reported.
The legal challenge comes after Greenville police officers issued $500 tickets to worshippers who refused to leave a parking lot where a drive-in service was being conducted Wednesday, the ADF said in a statement announcing the legal challenge.
The plaintiffs contend that people attending the drive-in service remained in their vehicles with windows rolled up while listening to Pastor Scott preach from inside the empty church building.
“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” said ADF senior counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “In Greenville, you can be in your car at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car at a drive-in church service. That’s not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional, too.”
Speaking with FOX News, Kristen Waggoner, with the ADF, said during the church’s drive-in service “everyone was in their car and they were listening to an FM transistor radio.”
She said about 20 cars were in the church’s parking lot when eight police officers came and gave the Temple Baptist Church and Pastor Scott $500 tickets for being there.
Waggoner said she filed the lawsuit just before Easter and negotiated a stay through Easter, but the mayor “doubled down again” on Monday morning “saying he would enforce the order against the church.”
“We’re deeply concerned because the First Amendment is not completely suspended even during times of crisis,” Waggoner said.
Scott said the fact that officers issued tickets “really doesn’t make any sense.”
“Just two blocks down the street, the Sonic, they can sit there and talk and eat, but a couple blocks up the other way, they can’t even come with the windows rolled up, with me preaching inside the church,” he added.
The Greenville Police Department and Simmons’ office did not immediately respond to FOX News’ request for comment.
During a news conference on Monday morning, Simmons said that members of the Temple Baptist Church will not have to pay the $500 tickets they were issued at the drive-in church service, according to The Delta-Democrat Times.
The church has been conducting the services for the past three weeks in accordance with social distancing rules, the ADF said. Simmons’ ban orders church buildings closed for in-person and drive-in services.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, makes no such mention in his shelter-in-place order.
Religious services have become somewhat of a contentious issue as governments prohibit large gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Simmons also reportedly said on Monday that the current order limiting gatherings to ten people or less remains in place, adding that he has asked for “definitive guidance” from the governor’s office.
“What we’re asking for is definitive guidance regarding drive-in and parking lot services, that’s what the issue is,” Simmons said, according to the paper.
Last week On Fire Christian Church sued Louisville, Ky. Mayor Greg Fischer and the city after Fischer announced drive-in style religious gatherings were not allowed on Easter, Law Officer reported.
U.S. District Judge Justin Walker sided with the church on Saturday. His ruling said the city was prohibited from “enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire.”
“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter,” Walker wrote in his sternly worded 20-page opinion. “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.”
“The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional,” Walker added.