The pastor of a rural church in Greenville, Miss., filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday that claims its constitutional rights were violated when local police broke up a “drive-in” church service and issued $500 tickets to attendees.
The city’s April 7 executive order bans in-person and drive-in church services in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was used the next day to disperse a Wednesday-night service in Temple Baptist Church’s parking lot, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.
Temple Baptist said the move ran afoul of its rights to freedom of speech and religious expression.
Church communities have been encouraged to move services to online streaming or Zoom conference calls. But Temple Baptist doesn’t have a website and many members don’t have social media accounts or the ability to access online livestreams, the church said.
Temple Baptist said it has undertaken social-distancing mitigation measures such as blocking access to church restrooms, locking the church building doors during the low-power FM radio broadcast, and posting obvious notices for churchgoers to stay in their cars with the windows rolled up.
The church also took aim at the city’s categorization of church services as “nonessential” for the purposes of the Covid-19 pandemic. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) specifically included religious services in his definition of “essential services” that are allowed to stay open for business, Temple Baptist said.
Reeves voiced support for Greenville churchgoers.
“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,” Reeves said Friday. “Don’t trample the constitution.”
Causes of Action: First and Fourteenth Amendments; Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act; coronavirus executive orders.
Relief Requested: Declarative judgment; temporary restraining order; damages; costs; and fees.
Response: The City of Greenville didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorneys: Alliance Defending Freedom represents Temple Baptist.
The case is Temple Baptist Church v. City of Greenville, N.D. Miss., docket number not yet available, complaint filed 4/10/20.