To avoid further litigation based on an order related to the coronavirus pandemic, the Greenville City Council this week modified the language of the order banning certain types of gatherings in the city.
While the city has not been served with the lawsuit filed on behalf of the pastor of Temple Baptist Church after police officers issued citations during a drive-up church service two weeks ago, city officials have been in contact with the non-profit foundation who filed the lawsuit.
The new order issued Tuesday evening from the council matches the first order in regards to bans on gatherings of more than 10 people, but requires all people at all drive-ins of any kinds to keep the windows in the vehicle closed while at the drive-in.
This includes drive-in food establishments as well. Windows may be opened for ordering and delivery of food, but must remain closed the rest of the visit.
While there are restrictions in place for drive-ins, there are no outright bans on such.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons created an executive order effectively banning the ban on drive-in church services last week, but the council had to rescind or modify its order for the change to be permanent.
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 federal government, through the Department of Justice, issued a statement of interest last week lending its support to the church members.
The item was fourth on the agenda but the council opted to discuss the item in closed session owing to the pending legal action.
In the opening of the council session, Simmons asked city attorney Andy Alexander if the earlier order was illegal or unconstitutional in nature. He said the order was not illegal.
During discussions, Simmons cited precedent in other situations where local orders preempting certain constitutional rights during emergency situations were upheld.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced the shelter-in-place order for the state on April 2 and Simmons said the City of Greenville received guidelines from the Mississippi State Department of Health on April 3 that states many COVID-19 cases are linked to church gatherings.
On April 7, the City of Greenville issued an executive order that all church buildings were to be closed for in-person and drive-in church services until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter-in-Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Reeves. The shelter-in-place order was extended by one more week on Friday, now set to end at 8 a.m. April 27.
On April 8, members of Temple Baptist Church held a drive-in service in the church parking lot, which resulted in several members receiving $500 tickets.
The full order states:
ORDER: Mandating, effective immediately, that in an effort to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), all drive-in establishments, including but not limited to, restaurants, churches, pharmacies, food pantries, and any and all other establishments, businesses, and organizations that lend themselves to drive-in or drive-up experiences and/or services are permitted and patrons shall keep their windows up in order to protect the life, safety, and general welfare of the general public. Patrons of drive-in establishments may lower their windows only when receiving services rendered by said establishments. State and federal mandates including Center for Disease Control, Mississippi State Department of Health, and social distancing guidelines must be complied with.
The Greenville City Council enters this Order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect and save lives in this community.
This Order further supports the emergency declared by Proclamation of the Greenville City Council on March 17, 2020 stating that conditions of extreme peril have arisen within the city caused by COVID-19 (Coronavirus).
Violation of this Order shall be a misdemeanor, and shall result in a warning for the first violation. Subsequent violations shall result in a fine not to exceed $500.00, at the discretion of the Municipal Court Judge.
This Order remains in effect until further order of Council.