Attorney General William P. Barr Issues Statement on Religious Practice and Social Distancing; Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest in Mississippi Church Case
(Editor’s Note: April 11, 2020, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino rescinds exemption for King’s Cathedral’s drive-thru Easter service)
News Release from US DoJ, April 14, 2020
Attorney General William P. Barr issued the following statement:
"In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the President has issued guidelines calling on all Americans to do their part to slow the spread of a dangerous and highly contagious virus. Those measures are important because the virus is transmitted so easily from person to person, and because it all too often has life-threatening consequences for its victims, it has the potential to overwhelm health care systems when it surges.
To contain the virus and protect the most vulnerable among us, Americans have been asked, for a limited period of time, to practice rigorous social distancing. The President has also asked Americans to listen to and follow directions issued by state and local authorities regarding social distancing. Social distancing, while difficult and unfamiliar for a nation that has long prided itself on the strength of its voluntary associations, has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of American lives from an imminent threat. Scrupulously observing these guidelines is the best path to swiftly ending COVID-19’s profound disruptions to our national life and resuming the normal economic life of our country. Citizens who seek to do otherwise are not merely assuming risk with respect to themselves, but are exposing others to danger. In exigent circumstances, when the community as a whole faces an impending harm of this magnitude, and where the measures are tailored to meeting the imminent danger, the constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances.
But even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity. For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.
Today, the Department filed a Statement of Interest in support of a church in Mississippi that allegedly sought to hold parking lot worship services, in which congregants listened to their pastor preach over their car radios, while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot with their windows rolled up. The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open. The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing.
As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest. While we believe that during this period there is a sufficient basis for the social distancing rules that have been put in place, the scope and justification of restrictions beyond that will have to be assessed based on the circumstances as they evolve.
Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true more so than ever during this difficult time. The pandemic has changed the ways Americans live their lives. Religious communities have rallied to the critical need to protect the community from the spread of this disease by making services available online and in ways that otherwise comply with social distancing guidelines.
The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions."
 The City has since stated it will drop the fines, but will continue to enforce the order.
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Church Members Fined for Attending Drive-In Service—Despite Following COVID-19 Guidelines
by John Harding, Alliance Defending Freedom, April 14, 2020
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.
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Totally Related: April 11, 2020: Maui Mayor Michael Victorino rescinds exemption for King’s Cathedral’s drive-thru Easter service
Reuters: U.S. Justice Department sides with church in COVID-19 religious dispute
USA Today: DOJ sides with Mississippi church in COVID-19 challenge; church accuses police of discrimination
FOX: DOJ intervenes in Mississippi drive-in church case, says city's actions 'target religious conduct'
BuzzFeed: Christians Were Fined $500 For Attending A Drive-In Church — The Trump Administration Is Supporting Them In Court