Friday, April 24, 2020
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi city facing freedom-of-religion lawsuits and pressure from the U.S. attorney general has revised its policy that banned drive-up church services during the coronavirus pandemic, now saying the services are OK with windows rolled up.
The Greenville City Council made changes Tuesday—the first time it had met since Mayor Errick D. Simmons promised revisions. The Justice Department took the rare step last week of backing a church that sued over the city's restrictions on worship.
Greenville's new policy erases any distinction between drive-up church services and other types of drive-up interactions, including picking up food at restaurants. It says, for example, that customers may roll windows down to get food but must roll them up while sitting in the car to eat.
Conflicts have arisen in several places over religious practices as officials set limits on people's movements because of COVID-19. A federal judge in California on Wednesday denied a request by three churches to have in-person services during the pandemic. A Louisiana pastor has continued to hold in-person services in defiance of public health orders. A Kentucky church that held in-person services on Easter filed a federal lawsuit challenging restrictions on gatherings that state.
Ryan Tucker is an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the groups representing the Baptist church that sued Greenville over the original policy — the lawsuit backed by the Justice Department. Tucker said Wednesday that the group commends Greenville “for dropping its unconstitutional ban.”
“Public officials are right to care about public health and safety during the coronavirus crisis, but they are wrong when they treat churches more harshly than others in government orders related to it,” Tucker said.
Two lawsuits were filed against Greenville after the city's April 7 order. It had said that churches would be closed for in-person and drive-in services while Gov. Tate Reeves’s statewide stay-at-home order remains in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. Reeves has said he doesn't believe government can ban types of worship, but he has encouraged people to worship online or in other ways that allow for social distancing.
On April 8, Greenville police issued $500 tickets to several people attending drive-in church services. Some of those ticketed said the city was violating their First Amendment right of religious freedom.
The mayor later said people wouldn't have to pay the fines, but he wanted the Republican governor to give clear guidance about worship services. Simmons said Reeves weighed in during an April 15 call with mayors, saying drive-up services are acceptable. Simmons said that day that the City Council would revise Greenville's policy during its next meeting, which happened Tuesday.
Simmons said Tuesday that the city's interest all along has been “the health and safety of over 30,000 lives in the City of Greenville.”
The two lawsuits against Greenville remain alive.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within a few weeks. For some, it can cause more severe illness and even death.