Days after Mississippi Pastor Arthur Scott filed a lawsuit against the City of Greenville for issuing multiple members of his congregation $500 tickets for attending a drive-in service, the Justice Department intervened Tuesday in support of the church.
Attorney General William Barr argued that the city "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."
"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."
The Department filed a Statement of Interest to back Temple Baptist Church, which held a drive-in church service last Wednesday night, where people sat in their cars with their windows up in the church’s parking lot and listened to the pastor's sermon broadcast on a low-power FM frequency radio.
Scott had reportedly called Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons' office to inform them that they were holding the service on Wednesday "no matter what," according to the Delta Democrat-Times.
The police arrived and began issuing tickets.
Longtime church member Lee Gordon, told the publication that the church had been using the radio broadcast for about three weeks when the police intervened even though they were following social distancing guidelines.
“The police were respectful and just doing their job,” Gordon said. “They asked us to leave first and those who stayed got a ticket.”
While Barr said following directions issued by state and local authorities regarding social distancing is the best path to stop the spread of the coronavirus and that "the constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances," he stressed that "discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers" is still prohibited.
"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," Barr stated.
The Department argued in its statement of interest that "the city has the burden to demonstrate that prohibiting the small church here from holding the drive-in services at issue here—services where attendees are required to remain in their cars in the church parking lot at all times with their windows rolled up and spaced consistent with CDC guidelines—is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest. As of now, it seems unlikely that the city will be able to carry that burden."