(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)


(CNSNews.com) – The Justice Department on Tuesday sided with a Mississippi church against the mayor of Greenville for fining churchgoers who attended drive-in services during Holy Week.

According to the complaint filed on behalf of Temple Baptist Church by the Alliance Defending Freedom, eight uniformed officers were sent to “bust up” the church’s “lightly attended ‘drive-in’ church service.”

“Although the Governor’s Executive Orders expressly allows churches to remain open and hold services of this sort, the City thought that Plaintiff’s ‘drive-in’ church service — where everyone stays inside their cars with windows up while listening to music and a sermon broadcasted over FM radio — posed a unique and unacceptable threat to public health and safety.” the complaint stated.

The city council and Democrat Mayor Errick Simmons, however, adopted an executive order on April 7 that mandated all churches buildings be closed “not just for in-person services but also for ‘drive-in’ services where there is no in-person contact.”

Churchgoers, including the pastor Arthur Scott, who attended Wednesday’s drive-in service were fined $500.

“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, said in a statement. “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.”

Attorney General William Barr agreed, saying that “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”

“Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity. For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens,” he said in a statement.

“Today, the Department filed a Statement of Interest in support of a church in Mississippi that allegedly sought to hold parking lot worship services, in which congregants listened to their pastor preach over their car radios, while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot with their windows rolled up,” Barr said.

“The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open,” he said. “The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing.

“As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest. While we believe that during this period there is a sufficient basis for the social distancing rules that have been put in place, the scope and justification of restrictions beyond that will have to be assessed based on the circumstances as they evolve,” Barr added.