One week after citations were issued to the congregants of Temple Baptist Church for having a drive-in church service, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons on Wednesday announced drive-in services where families stay in their vehicles are allowed.
Simmons said the announcement comes after receiving “clear and definitive guidance” on the matter for the first time from Governor Tate Reeves.
“We just asked for definitive guidance and the governor has finally given it to us,” Simmons said during the live conference, which was broadcast on Facebook Live. Simmons said Reeves gave a definitive answer regarding the drive-in services during a call that morning with Simmons and other mayors throughout the state.
“We did a press conference on Monday and we asked the governor for bold leadership and definitive guidance to this issue of drive-in, faith-based services and parking lot services. The governor today has answered that call,” Simmons said.
Reeves announced the shelter-in-place order April 2 and Simmons said the City of Greenville received a guideline from the Mississippi State Department of Heath 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.
During a press conference Monday, Simmons rescinded the fines but said the order would remain in place until a definitive answer was given by Reeves.
A civil suit was filed April 10 by the Alliance for Defending Freedom in the Northern District Court of Mississippi. The suit alleges the fines violate the civil rights of the members of the church.
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 Tuesday.
Simmons on Wednesday said the Greenville City Council will review its order issued April 7 stating drive-in church services are not permitted.
“All the decisions we make are data-driven but more importantly, based upon state and federal mandates that were received at the time,” he said.
“We were very cautious given a series of things we looked at, including the bed space we have at our hospital, the number of ICU beds we have, the number of known violations we had with folks doing in-person services over the CDC 10 people guideline and also folks who were doing drive-in, quite frankly, in the parking lot but getting out of their cars,” Simmons said. “Today, given the definitive guidance from the governor, the City of Greenville will allow drive-in and parking lot services in the city so long as families stay in their cars with windows up and all state and federal social distancing guidelines, mandates and standards should be adhered to and complied with during this time.”
Alliance Defending Freedom’s Ryan Tucker, senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries, said they are waiting to see how the city will vote on the matter and they will make a decision on how to move forward at that time.
“We are pleased to see that the City of Greenville is moving in the right direction, but the mayor indicated that revision of this unconstitutional order would not be considered until next Tuesday. Our concern continues to be that the church was singled out and is being treated worse than bars and restaurants in the area. But we look forward to seeing the changes the city votes on and will evaluate further at that time,” Tucker said.
As of Friday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 264 new cases of COVID-19 and seven new deaths as a result of the virus, bringing the state total of cases to 3,624 and 129 total deaths. In Washington County, there have been 67 cases, two deaths and two reports of outbreaks in long-term care facilities.