- The Washington Times
Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Officials in Greenville, Mississippi, said they will no longer target worshippers at drive-in church services following clarification from Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves that such services are “essential.”

The small city backed off drawing national attention after authorities had handed out $500 tickets at one church parking lot service and showed up in force to shut down another.

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons “states that all drive-in and parking lot church services are allowed in the City of Greenville so long as families stay in their cars with windows up and all state and federal social distancing guidelines and standards are adhered to and complied with,” the city said in a statement issued Wednesday.

“Churches are still encouraged to host church services via electronic, social media, streaming and telephonic platforms,” the city continued.

But religious legal groups urged Mr. Simmons to reconsider, and local pastors vowed to continue holding services in an echo of a flashpoint between church and state officials that also are erupting in Kentucky and elsewhere during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Simmons, who has described himself as a devout Christian, also reminded pastors that local radio stations would provide free airtime for them “to reach their parishioners.”

The city had been at odds with pastors at Temple Baptist Church and King James Baptist Church since last week.

Mr. Reeves issued shelter-in-place rules for the Magnolia State on April 3, and the Greenville City Council followed that with a 4-1 vote on April 7 that put religious institutions under the same restrictions.

In the run-up to Easter Sunday, Mr. Reeves also encouraged churches to hold online services but said he would not mandate they do so.

In the aftermath of last week’s showdowns, Temple Baptist filed suit against the city, and First Liberty, a nonprofit religious group, warned of doing the same on behalf of King James Baptist in a letter to Mr. Simmons.

On Monday, Mr. Simmons struck a defiant tone at a press conference, insisting that, despite the legal attention and notoriety that had come to his small city of 30,000, the city council’s bar on religious services would stand.

However, he insisted he was not trying to single out religious groups and asked Mr. Reeves for clarification as to whether his statewide order should include churches holding services with people in cars.

On Wednesday, the governor did just that in a conference call with multiple Mississippi mayors including Mr. Simmons, explicitly putting the “essential” label on services if they are held in drive-by or parking lot settings.

In Greenville, city employees had managed to quash the $500 tickets handed out individually to a handful of worshippers at Temple Baptist last Wednesday.

On Thursday of last week, after vowing to hold services at King James Baptist, pastor Charles Hamilton lit into several police officers who arrived to break up his small, outdoor service to people parked in their cars.

The mayor promptly labeled the pastor’s vow a “provocation.”

First Liberty, a religious nonprofit, applauded Mississippi’s clarity. The group had sent a letter to Mr. Simmons on behalf of King James Baptist and also had obtained a federal judge’s stay on a Kentucky order that would have stopped Easter services at a Louisville church.

“We thank Governor Reeves and Mayor Simmons for recognizing the importance of protecting religious liberty by clarifying that drive-in church services are allowed during this difficult time,” said Jeremy Dys, a special counsel for litigation at First Liberty.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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