(UnitedVoice.com) – On Tuesday, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a statement of interest in a case where a church’s Constitutional rights may have been violated. On Easter Sunday, congregants of the Temple Baptist Church of Greenville, Mississippi, were fined for attending a drive-in Easter service. In Mississippi, churches are classified as essential and are allowed to remain open according to the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statement of interest says, “The United States has a substantial interest in the preservation of its citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion, expressly protected by the First Amendment.”
On Sunday, April 12, churchgoers gathered in the church’s parking lot to celebrate Easter. They were told by church leaders to stay in their cars with the windows up. Parishioners listened to the Sunday message over their car radios. During the service, police surrounded the parking lot, asked congregants in the cars to lower their windows and provide their identification. They were issued $500 fines.
Church members were not violating social distancing guidelines set by the CDC or the state. In fact, the only ones who may have violated social distancing protocols were the police officers knocking on windows demanding people lower their windows.
This week, the church sued in federal district court. They claim the City of Greenville violated their Constitutional right to free exercise of religion and Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Can’t Single Out Religious Institutions
Last week, US Attorney General Will Barr said there were multiple instances of religious institutions being singled out around the country and that the DOJ would be intervening. In support of the Temple Baptist Church of Greenville, the DOJ said in its filing that it was clear the church was being singled out. As an essential organization under both federal and state guidelines during COVID-19, the church had a legal right to worship as long as they practiced proper social distancing.
In the filing, the DOJ also said restaurants are allowed to provide drive-up service where drivers roll down windows and interact directly with restaurant staff. Yet, Easter worshippers were not allowed a religious ceremony where people remained in their cars in a parking lot with their windows up, distant from one another.
The DOJ wrote that if a government allows a business or other comparable place of assembly to open, it can’t order a church to “close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings.” It also said that churches should not be singled out “for special burdens.”
City Backs Down
After the DOJ filed its statement of interest, Greenville Mayor Erick Simmons said the worshippers who attended the drive-in Easter service would not be required to pay the fine. The announcement largely made the DOJ’s statement of interest symbolic but still important. It serves as a warning to states and communities that the Constitution doesn’t stop because of COVID-19. The DOJ will seek to rectify the wrongs made by overhanded governments — and rightly so.
By Don Purdum, Freelance Contributor
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