The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it will take action in a religious liberty case involving churches in Greenville, Mississippi, where police officers issued $500 tickets to church members who refused to leave the parking lot for a drive-in Easter church service.
The DOJ told Fox News they believe the court filing “strongly suggests that the city’s actions target religious conduct.” The DOJ said the United States files in cases that have “important issues of religious liberty in courts at every level, from trial courts to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Attorney General William Barr issued a statement giving guidance on how the DOJ should work with religious-liberty cases.
“Religious liberty is a fundamental principle of enduring importance in America, enshrined in our Constitution and other sources of federal law,” Barr said.
AG BILL BARR: "Government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity." pic.twitter.com/MOJzEVRMqJ
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) April 14, 2020
On April 7, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons issued an executive order calling for a shelter-in-place that took specific aim at church services.
The mandate ordered, “all church buildings closed for in person and drive in church services, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter In Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves.”
Another Greenville church, King James Bible Baptist Church, attempted a “drive-in” church service, allowing members of the congregation to stay in their personal vehicles. Video shot by Rev. James Hamilton of King James Bible shows the church parking lot flooded with police officers attempting to shut down the service.
“I’m a good citizen here, I don’t sell drugs — look at the police — I’m just a Pastor,” said Hamilton. “I got police officers here like I’m robbing or killing someone. They don’t have this when a murder is in Greenville.”
Video from Pastor Hamilton of King James Bible Baptist Church in Greenville, MS. Church tried the “drive-in” method of holding services & were targeted due to the Mayor issuing an order prohibiting such services. Watch as an officer tells the Pastor that his rights are suspended. pic.twitter.com/zLdT6Qd8ew
— Nick Short (@PoliticalShort) April 11, 2020
King James Bible filed a lawsuit with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to challenge Simmons’ executive order directed at churches.
“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. “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.”
ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus pointed out drive-in church services respect the health and safety of the Greensville community during the pandemic.
“The whole point of conducting a drive-in church service is to respect the health and safety of others,” said Galus. “No one at Temple Baptist’s service even got out of their cars, and yet they were ticketed $500 per person under the mayor’s baseless ban.”
A statement from DOJ concurred that the mayor’s executive order infringes upon and singles out American’s First Amendment rights.
“The allegations in this complaint strongly suggest that the city’s prohibition of drive-in church services, despite the inclusion of measures to reduce the risk such as requiring people to remain in their cars, are neither neutral nor generally applicable,” the DOJ said.