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The Justice Department jumped into a federal lawsuit in Mississippi on Tuesday to support parishioners who had been fined $500 for attending a drive-in church service, demonstrating the Trump administration’s willingness to challenge what it sees as onerous local lockdown rules during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Baptist Temple Church in Greenville, Mississippi, had alleged in a complaint last week that local police overstepped their bounds by enforcing a ban on drive-in church services and trying to “bust up” the parking lot congregation. Worshippers were inside vehicles with their windows rolled up while listening to a broadcast of the sermon inside when eight police officers began issuing tickets, including to the pastor.
The Trump administration filed what’s called a statement of interest in the case, showing the government’s views about the general legal principles at play, contending parishioners retain certain constitutional rights to assemble and exercise free speech despite the pandemic.
The administration contends the ban on drive-in church gatherings does not appear to be applied neutrally to secular and religious activities alike, and thus, the filing said, “The facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the city’s actions target religious conduct.”
“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 government continued.
“As of now, it seems unlikely that the city will be able to carry that burden,” the statement said.
The filing follows a pattern of the Trump administration stepping into cases to support Christians who allege discrimination, even when the administration isn’t a party to the litigation.
The case was assigned to US District Court Judge Debra M. Brown, an appointee of former president Barack Obama, on Monday.
The same day, Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons said the churchgoers would not have to pay the fines, but he said the city’s policy banning drive-in church services would remain intact. He did not respond to a question from BuzzFeed News about whether drive-in churchgoers would be fined if the services resume.
Responding to the mayor, Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group representing the church, said in a statement that the lawsuit challenging the ban would proceed: “The city’s order is baseless, and so we intend to continue aggressively pursuing our case against it in court.”
For weeks, Pastor Arthur Scott had been delivering sermons from inside the church — via an FM radio broadcast to worshippers in cars — when police arrived last Wednesday to issue $500 citations.
Gov. Tate Reeves had specifically exempted religious gatherings from his stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, calling them essential services.
But the Greenville mayor and city council issued a more restrictive ban that prohibited “drive in” church gatherings, issuing an executive order on April 7 that said “all church buildings will be closed for in person and drive in church services.” The city had also said church gatherings were nonessential services and staff there couldn’t convene more than 10 people at a time.
In challenging the citations, the church’s complaint filed at a federal court in Greenville noted the church marquee had declared “STAY IN CAR” and that the production team inside the church never exceeded 10 people.
The complaint alleges the city violated the church’s First Amendment right to assembly and free speech, and ran afoul of the 14th Amendment’s right to due process, because the ban was issued without warning or a description of the penalty for breaking the rules.
The lawsuit also argued the state policies that allow religious gatherings during the pandemic override the city’s more restrictive rules.
“In sum,” the complaint said, “the Church's ‘drive-in’ services are a creative way for the Church and its parishioners to worship together and exercise their faith while avoiding in-person contact and ensuring the health and safety of attendees and the local community.”
Responding to the bust, Reeves said on Twitter, “If you send police after worshippers trying to social distance, you are going to have Mississippians revolt. I’ve asked all pastors not to hold these services — but we ordered churches safe from these outrageous actions. Don’t trample the constitution.”
Alliance Defending Freedom noted that nonreligious fast-food drive-ins were allowed even as congregants were being fined. A Sonic Drive-In a few blocks east of the church continues to operate, allowing drivers to pull up, roll down windows, and get burgers.
“You call in,” an employee at Sonic explained to BuzzFeed News in a phone call Monday. “When you come, you come pick up your order.”
The Justice Department had telegraphed it would take action in the Mississippi case — as it has by filing statements of interest in other cases to help Christians. Alliance Defending Freedom has also enjoyed the administration’s courtroom support to help a Christian Colorado baker who refused to serve a gay couple and cases to help Christians’ First Amendment claims on college campuses.
Kerri Kupec — a spokesperson for Attorney General Bill Barr and a former spokesperson for Alliance Defending Freedom — tweeted on Saturday, “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ.”
Kupec then retweeted Kristen Waggoner — a top lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom — who said her group “is grateful AG Barr will ensure constitutional rights are protected while also protecting public health.”
Barr added in a statement on Tuesday, "The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions."
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