While the vast majority of places of worship in Mississippi plan to hold Easter and Passover services this weekend through online means and avoid hosting large groups of parishioners, one state legislator is urging state officials to protect the rights of those churches to hold services in whatever way they please.
Rep. Dana Criswell (R-Olive Branch) has written to Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, and Secretary of State Michael Watson urging them to protect the rights of Mississippians to worship in whatever way they see fit.
Criswell’s letter was sent in response to actions taken in one community where the police department handed out $500 tickets to people attending a “parking lot” service Wednesday night.
The Delta Democrat-Times reported people who attended the gathering were inside their cars with windows rolled up and listening to their pastor on an FM radio frequency. However, they were fined for being in violation of an executive order from the city’s mayor that prevented any such gathering, inside or outside.
The church involved was identified as Temple Baptist Church in Greenville with Pastor Arthur Scott. The report quoted a church member saying that the church has been doing similar services outside for the past three weeks.
The mayor of Greenville, Errick Simmons, issued an executive order that all church buildings were to be closed for both in-person and drive-in church services, an order meant to further enforce Reeves’ Shelter-in-Place order which was issued earlier this month.
Those who came to the parking lot thought they were fine staying in their cars and listening with the pastor inside. Several reported they were elderly and didn’t have internet availability to watch any live streaming of the service.
Temple Baptist has since said it would sue the city for Wednesday’s police action. The lawsuit is being filed in federal court through Alliance Defending Freedom, which is a Christian nonprofit law firm focused on religious and civil liberties.
Another Greenville church, King James Bible Baptist Church, has also written Simmons with a complaint about targeting its drive-in church services. Their letter was sent through First Liberty Counsel, which is another nonprofit legal institution that specializes in religious liberty cases.
While the governor has urged churches not to meet in person, follow the shelter-in-place guidelines, and to hold services online Sunday through the end of the order, Reeves has also said that he can’t order churches not to hold services.
"In America and Mississippi, we’re not going to be the kind of government that shuts down worship," he said.
Seeing what happened in Greenville, Criswell felt compelled to speak out against it and wants state officials to protect religious freedom, quoting the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...”
Criswell also quoted similar language protecting religious gatherings in Mississippi found in the state constitution.
The Olive Branch lawmaker considers the local orders, such as in Greenville, in direct violation of the state constitution.
“In response to the governor's orders, several local governments have issued orders that place additional restrictions on modes of worship that are in clear violation of our state constitution,” Criswell wrote. “These orders attempt to outline the method or mode of worship a religious body may use to worship. Churchgoers and pastors have been threatened with fines and arrest if they refuse to comply with these unconstitutional orders.”
The course of action that should be taken, according to Criswell, is for Gov. Reeves and state officials to publicly condemn local officials’ actions, such as what took place in Greenville, to closely monitor the situation, “and request every elected official demand the citizens of Mississippi be free to worship without threat or fear of arrest.”
The vast majority of churches have opted to shut down and use online means of worship during Reeves’ Shelter-in-Place order. Several have used the drive-in method as what they consider to be a safe alternative to meeting in person.
MONDAY UPDATE: Simmons today (April 13) announced the $500 tickets issued at Temple Baptist Church last week would be rescinded in an effort to unify the city. However, he warned tickets would be issued if churches decide to violate the edict in the future. Simmons was also going to ask Reeves to clarify his Shelter-in-Place order, which limits gatherings to no more than 10 people.