- The Washington Times
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A religious rights group on Wednesday threatened legal action against Chemung County, New York, unless county officials allow drive-in church services currently banned as part of the coronavirus shutdown.

It’s the latest volley in a church vs. state showdown over social distancing mandates intended to stop the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit threat in New York means the feud between ecclesiastical and secular officials has erupted in at least five states. While deals have been crafted to solve the problems in several states, the conflict isn’t going away as long as stay-at-home orders remain in place.

Attorneys with the religious rights group First Liberty Institute wrote Chemung County officials Wednesday accusing them of singling out services at His Tabernacle Family Church, Pine City Christian Church and Journey Church.

On April 10, County Executive Christopher Moss went beyond the state’s stay-at-home order by specifically banning drive-in church services, forcing the houses of worship to cancel activities and Easter Sunday services, according to the pending lawsuit.

First Liberty, which has also represented churches in Louisville, Kentucky, and Greenville, Mississippi, pointed to those as examples where local edicts against religious services that follow social distancing guidelines have not held up to First Amendment challenges.

“Drive-in church service bans do not fare well under this standard,” wrote First Liberty counsel Keisha Russell. “Other municipalities have been hard-pressed to defend similar bans.”

Ms. Russell threatened legal action Friday if Mr. Moss did not agree to rescind his order, which she said violates First Amendment religious freedom protections.

Mr. Moss did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Attorney General William Barr has weighed in on the side of the churches.

He let Mississippi officials and the rest of the country know that the Department of Justice would cast a jaundiced eye on efforts to curtail religious services that did not run afoul of social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Louisville, a church that has been battling city officials and was vandalized last weekend over its drive-in services won a reprieve from the city.

On Fire Christian Church and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced a deal Tuesday that allow the services to continue while following COVID-19 guidelines.

“We are grateful to Mayor Fischer and Louisville city officials who worked with us to ensure their policies are both consistent with the Constitution and the CDC’s guidelines,” said Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute.

The church has been holding services in its parking lot, with cars parked 6 feet apart and the windows “no more than half open for the entirety of the service,” as preachers use loudspeakers or a low-frequency radio transmitter. Those sorts of services are now cleared with authorities.

The groups had clashed before Easter, leading to On Fire obtaining a federal restraining order against any attempt to shut down services that Sunday.

While holding a drive-in service Sunday, vandals scattered nails at the entrance and exit areas of the property.

“The members of On Fire Christian Church are saddened by this crime,” Mr. Byron said. “We hope today’s agreement will end the violence against the church.”

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

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