Local Officials Resurrect Hostilities on Easter

April 13, 2020

"Mississippi isn't China," Governor Tate Reeves (R) insisted. Someone might want to tell Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons (D) that, since his Christian crackdown is making national news. In videos that exploded across the internet, Christians at a drive-in service were shocked to find policemen at their windows, handing out $500 tickets. The mayor, they were told, wanted to make an example of the church. But what he actually made was a classic case of religious intolerance.

"Everyone was in their cars with the windows up listening to Pastor Arthur Scott preach[ing] on the radio. What is harmful about people being in their cars listening to preaching with their windows up?" Charles Hamilton asked. "Christians, do you all see what is going on?" Despite the intimidation, Pastor Scott was undeterred. "I told them to get some more tickets ready," because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night." The police officer told him he could be arrested if he held a drive-in service Easter Sunday. If that's what it takes to keep preaching, he fired back, "I'll be glad to go to jail."

If Alliance Defending Freedom has anything to do with it, Pastor Scott -- and any other churches following the government's guidelines -- won't be going anywhere. "If [government] allows waiting in the car at Sonic, it should permit a drive-thru Easter service," tweeted Kristen Waggoner, ADF senior vice president and counsel for Trinity Baptist Church, about the city's action. "Safety is critical. So is following the Constitution. First Amendment isn't completely suspended nor does [government] have unlimited authority to target churches however they please. There are limits."

Governor Reeves himself had been clear: "The government does not have the right to shut down places of worship. If you start taking people's rights away, very rarely does the government ever give them back to them." Unfortunately, rogue extremists seem to be taking advantage of the pandemic in a handful of localities -- like Kentucky, where Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (D) is actually setting up a hotline for people to report churches who meet in their cars. When First Liberty Institute protested, Fischer only dug in deeper. "It's not really practical or safe to accommodate drive-up services taking place in our community. Think about this on Sunday morning: There would be hundreds of thousands of people driving around our community."

While Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) stood by the mayor's tyrannical campaign, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took him to task in a letter demanding he reverse course. "It raises the specter that the government is singling religious people out for disfavored treatment." Certainly, the states should try to stop people from meeting in person and putting entire communities at risk. But, he pointed out, "During Easter and Passover, the government should not flatly prohibit religious gatherings that comply with CDC guidelines unless it has no other choice to stop COVID-19. I believe the government has means to stop the spread of COVID-19 short of a flat ban on gatherings of people in vehicles for religious purposes."

Fortunately, in an emergency ruling Saturday, Judge Justin Walker -- Donald Trump's nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court -- issued a temporary restraining order against Mayor Fischer, writing that he violated religious freedom by suggesting churches couldn't meet in their cars. "The mayor's decision is stunning. And it is, 'beyond all reason,' unconstitutional."

On Friday, I raised the growing concern over religious intolerance with Vice President Mike Pence on "Washington Watch" and asked if the Department of Justice would weigh in. We didn't have to wait long. On Saturday, DOJ's Kerri Kupec warned local officials that Attorney General William Barr has his eye on them. "During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!" she wrote. And for many of these pastors, not a moment too soon!

For the latest on all of these cases, check out FRC's new post, "Open the Doors? The Vast Majority of Churches Are Not Defying Government Orders."