By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
April 15, 2020
Local government officials and law enforcement officers who interfere with drive-in church services for the purpose of enforcing social distancing may find themselves on the wrong side of the Constitution.
Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Temple Baptist in Greenville, Mississippi, where police officers issued $500 citations to churchgoers in the parking lot as they listened on the radio to their pastor preaching inside the church. At nearby King James Bible Church, officers showed up to shut down a service before it had even begun. Both incidents stemmed from an April 7 edict from Democratic Mayor Errick Simmons banning church gatherings.
Closer to home in Wilmington, North Carolina, police and city officials backed down from their stance that drive-in services were illegal after a law firm pushed back and presented a letter from Gov. Roy Cooper clarifying that such gatherings “appear to be acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and avoid contact.”
A copy of the letter was sent to the North Carolina Sheriffs Association and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, referenced the Governor’s letter when he received calls from a few churches asking about the legality of drive-in services prior to Easter Sunday.
“Temporary action to reduce the spread of a global pandemic is a justified action by the government, so long as it doesn’t treat religious institutions differently compared with how it treats other comparable secular gatherings,” Creech said.
“I think it should be noted few people in today’s culture understand the necessity of worship. Granted, there is a sense in which one can worship online, by television, or on the radio. But going to church via these mediums is about like a guy trying to kiss his girlfriend over the telephone. It’s just not the same and it can never meet the need of corporate worship. In a situation like this, I think church and state have to be friends and work together. Still, these restrictions on corporate worship cannot stand indefinitely. Our right to assemble for worship doesn’t come from the state, but from God.”
ADF attorney Ryan Tucker highlighted the necessity for equal treatment under the law in his description of the Temple Baptist case in Mississippi.
“What’s interesting about this case is that 200 yards away from this church is a Sonic Drive-In,” he told the media. “So can you go get a burger down at Sonic but you can’t, on a Sunday, pull into your own church and listen to the Word preached without the possibility of getting a ticket.”
The Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in support of Temple Baptist, and Attorney General William Barr said his office would monitor government regulation of religious services.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Barr said that even in times of emergency, “the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”
“Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity,” his statement said. “Religions institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”
Rev. Creech concluded, “When government is a reasonable and just authority, and concerned for the common good, we have every reason to follow its orders. I think that’s what most everyone is recognizing at this point. But this doesn’t mean government should be beyond our criticisms or scrutiny as to whether it’s being oppressive or playing the tyrant. When we see the government releasing prisoners by the thousands because of the coronavirus, but threatening with imprisonment and fines pastors and churchgoers, we certainly have reason to question its intent. At some point we may even have to ignore or disobey its commands. To say the people are not the final arbiters, the final judges, even in such matters as a national pandemic, is to justify every form of tyranny ever employed.”