By John Harding
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many churches have had to change the way they hold services in order to adapt to social distancing guidelines and local “stay-at-home” orders.
Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi found one creative way to do just that, offering a CDC-compliant, drive-in church service for its attendees.
But last week, City police officers busted up a midweek service and fined those in attendance. And Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Temple Baptist Church. Today, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest supporting the church, agreeing that our constitutional rights must be upheld during this crisis and that the city’s actions unfairly targeted the church.
On April 8, Pastor Arthur Scott preached God’s Word from an empty church building. He spoke into a microphone connected to a low-power FM transmitter. Attendees were able to park outside the building and tune in—a sign of community and commitment.
This was just about as CDC-compliant as any church service could be.
As church members sat in their parked cars—with windows rolled up and shut—they listened to their pastor preach a sermon over their radios. The usual handshakes and hugs were replaced by waves and smiles. Seeing the people you love with your own eyes is enough to cheer the spirit in these times.
But as they listened to the sermon, eight uniformed police officers arrived at the parking lot and handed out $500 fines. Under an executive order from the Greenville mayor and city council, drive-in church services were banned. Even if no one stepped out of their cars. Even if windows remained up.
Clearly, the City of Greenville is unconstitutionally singling out churches.
Even as these churchgoers were being ticketed, Greenville residents all over town waited in restaurant parking lots for their meals to arrive. They sat in their cars, rolled down their windows, and received hand-delivered food.
No tickets were issued in these cases. The City allows drive-in restaurants and drive-through meal delivery to continue.
The only difference in these two situations is that the church had followed CDC recommendations even more closely. It seems the church’s only fault was that it provided spiritual food instead.
Treating churches worse than businesses or social services is unconstitutional. And that’s why ADF filed suit in federal district court on Friday, just a day after learning about the big-brother treatment of this church.
Alliance Defending Freedom is committed to advocating for churches that are unjustly discriminated against by the government. ADF Church Alliance is a membership initiative comprised of over 2,000 churches – like Temple Baptist Church – who are committed to preserving religious freedom.
In the past few weeks alone, ADF attorneys have fielded hundreds of questions and legal requests to help churches navigate changing laws and defend the rights of the Church.
Churches are critical. The Gospel that is preached via video, Facebook Live, the radio, and more is our source of hope when the world feels upside down. And Lord willing, we’ll be standing beside churches across the country as they seek to live out the Gospel—today, and when the COVID-19 crisis is over.