After fines were levied against members of Temple Baptist Church for holding a drive-in church service, the Alliance for Defending Freedom filed a civil suit in the Northern District Court of Mississippi on Good Friday, April 10.
The federal government, through the Department of Justice, issued a statement of interest Tuesday.
While the Department of Justice has issued its support of Temple Baptist Church’s lawsuit, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons on Tuesday evening said the order will remain in place.
“We are in a health pandemic. Leaders globally and nationally, in consultation with health experts, have asked all of us to contain the virus, save, and protect lives. In Greenville, we are doing what we can, to do, just that,” Simmons said. “The council received many calls about violations of in person church services and drive-in church services because church members got out of their cars. Until the council reconsiders or changes the current order, it stands. People are dying.”
The suit alleges the fines — which has since been rescinded — violate the civil rights of the members of the church.
According the lawsuit, “The scene was both shocking and humiliating. Plaintiffs are good citizens and valuable members of the Greenville community. Temple Baptist Church has been serving the Greenville community for almost 65 years, and Pastor Scott has been leading the church for over 45 years.”
The lawsuit also says the church officers did what they felt was enough to protect the health and safety of their parishioners and the community from COVID-19.
The lawsuit also said the city chose to make an example of the church by sending eight officers to disrupt the service.
Mayor Simmons said, in a press conference on Monday, there was no explicit intent to target the church to make an example.
The lawsuit claims the city violated three parts of the First Amendment including the right to assemble, the right to free speech and the free exercise of religion as well as the violation of the 14th amendment’s guarantee of procedural due process. Other charges include violations of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act and violations of Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeve’s executive orders 1463 and 1466.
The statement of interest from the Department of Justice argues: “There is no pandemic exception, however, to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards. Indeed, ‘individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis.’ These individual rights, including the protections in the Bill of Rights made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, are always in force and restrain government action.
“At the same time, the Constitution does not hobble government from taking necessary, temporary measures to meet a genuine emergency. According to the Supreme Court, ‘in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.’ Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 29 (1905).
Ryan Tucker, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Temple Baptist Church, said he was pleased the administration noticed the case as he read the statement of interest for the first time as it appeared in his email inbox.
“In Greenville, you can be in your car with the windows rolled down at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car with the windows rolled up at a drive-in church service,” said Tucker, who, though he lives in Arizona, has visited Greenville several times as family lived close by.
“To target churches that way is both nonsensical and unconstitutional,” he said.
Tucker, who works as a senior counsel for ADF, also filed a temporary restraining order on Monday night that would stop the ban on drive-in churches.
“This is why we have asked the court for a temporary restraining order to immediately halt enforcement of the city’s order while our lawsuit moves forward, and it’s also why the U.S. government has filed a statement of interest that urges the court to rule in the church’s favor,” Tucker said. “We appreciate the DOJ’s support for our position that this type of government action isn’t necessary to protect health and safety. It only serves to unnecessarily violate Americans’ freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
Tucker said he found out about the church’s plight because the organization he works for has contact with more than 2,000 churches in the nation.
Tucker said the aim of the lawsuit is to force the city to change its stance on bans on drive-in church services.
Though the mayor recently rescinded the fines assessed during the service at Temple Baptist, Tucker said the lawsuit is still in force.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Tucker said. “(Especially) since the mayor doubled-down on the bans in his press conference.”
Pastor Author Scott could not be reached by press time.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 57 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Washington County, two deaths and two long-term care facilities reporting outbreaks.
The full text of the lawsuit can be found here.