COVID-19 has touched every aspect of our lives, and our religious freedom is no exception. As the world deals with this pandemic, churches are finding creative solutions to minister to people in crisis. Yet too often they face unsympathetic or even hostile government officials, intent on needlessly shutting down their efforts.
Take Greenville, Mississippi, for example. During Holy Week, Temple Baptist Church found itself in the national spotlight after it invited congregants to safely gather and pray together, drive-in style, with congregants staying inside their cars.
That’s why my colleagues and I at Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit in federal court on Good Friday on behalf of Temple Baptist. Eight uniformed Greenville police officers went to a Wednesday night church service and ticketed church members $500 apiece for attending a drive-in service that complied with state safety and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
In response to the lawsuit, the city refrained from ticketing congregants on Easter Sunday. But then on Monday, the mayor held a press conference and said that while the citations issued to Temple Baptist congregants would be dropped, Greenville’s unconstitutional ban on drive-in church services would remain in full force against future services.
But the First Amendment is not so easily ignored. ADF has asked the court for a temporary restraining order, and the U.S. government has filed a statement of interest in the case in support of the church. A different federal court called a similar ban in Louisville, Kentucky, “stunning” and “‘beyond all reason’ unconstitutional.”
Churches play an important role in providing both spiritual and physical support during challenging times, such as this pandemic. The whole point of conducting a drive-in church service is to provide this support while protecting individuals’ health and safety. That is why Temple Baptist instructed congregants not to leave their cars or access the church building for any reason.
Yet in Greenville, you can park at a drive-in restaurant with your windows wide open, but you can’t park in a church parking lot with your windows closed to attend a church service. That’s nonsensical and unconstitutional.
Government restrictions on First Amendment freedoms must serve both a compelling government interest and do so in the least restrictive means possible. As the U.S. Department of Justice notes in its statement of interest, “it is unclear why prohibiting these services is the least restrictive means of protecting public health, especially if, as alleged in the complaint, the city allows other conduct that would appear to pose equal — if not greater — risks.”
Such restrictions must also be neutral toward religion and apply equally to everyone. Again, the DOJ said: “In addition to appearing non-neutral, the church’s allegations also tend to show that the city’s emergency actions are not applied in a generally applicable manner. The church alleges facts tending to show that conduct is being permitted for various secular reasons when equivalent conduct is being forbidden to churches holding drive-in services.”
Unfortunately, these situations, as surprising as they are, are not isolated. Every day, ADF receives dozens of inquiries related to COVID-19. In most of these instances, authorities have been quick to respond the right way, fixing their mistakes and finding a better way forward. Every time this happens, everyone wins. During this time, we need spirits of cooperation, not division and political posturing. The Constitution doesn’t prevent good policies; it ensures better ones.
Sadly, in North Carolina, government officials in both Charlotte and Greensboro used COVID-19-related orders as an excuse to unconstitutionally silence disfavored religious and political speech. Representatives of Love Life and Cities4Life, the organization led by David Benham, were arrested for praying outside open abortion clinics, even though both nonprofit groups are considered exempt service organizations under applicable Wuhan virus-related orders — orders the groups heeded, including staying at least six feet apart at all times.
These cases underscore the need for balance in times of crisis. We can prioritize the health and safety of ourselves and our neighbors without harming churches and people of faith. Banning church services and arresting pro-life citizens isn’t about public health and safety, it’s about some government officials silencing speakers they don’t like. The First Amendment rejects that kind of religious targeting, no matter the excuse.
In this time of uncertainty, churches and people of faith should continue to seek creative ways to worship, as well as to love and serve their communities. At the same time, governments should protect health and public safety while also respecting the faith-based needs of their churchgoing citizens. That’s a constitutional approach that helps everyone.