Greenville, MS Mayor Errick Simmons announced on Monday that members of the Temple Baptist Church will not have to pay the $500 tickets they were issued at an April 8 drive-in church service. But the situation in Greenville may not be fully resolved just yet.
As CBN News reported, members of the congregation were cited last week by Greenville police officers after Simmons issued an executive order requiring all church buildings to be closed for both in-person and drive-in church services due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The church members were parked in the church's parking lot with their windows rolled up, listening on their radios to Pastor Arthur Scott's sermon which was being broadcast on a low-power FM frequency.
The citations issued by the police resulted in a backlash in the national media and on social media. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also chimed in via Facebook, reminding local municipalities, "Don't trample the Constitution. Please use sense, everybody."
The Delta Democrat-Times reports at a press conference on the steps of City Hall, Simmons said, "This smear campaign full of lies about my beliefs are unfounded," referring to King James Bible Baptist Church Pastor Charles E. Hamilton's recent appearance on national talk shows, such as Fox News. "To publicly state this mayor is targeting a church is unacceptable and reprehensible."
Simmons said the current order limiting gatherings to 10 people or less remains in place. But he said he has asked for "definitive guidance" from Gov. Reeves' office.
"What we're asking for is definitive guidance regarding drive-in and parking lot services, that's what the issue is," Simmons said.
Pastor Charleston Hamilton's attorney, Jeremy Dys from First Liberty Institute, is concerned that the situation is not officially resolved yet.
"Mayor Simmons was repeatedly pressed about whether churches who abide by CDC guidelines and host drive-in church will face the specter of the police arriving on the scene to disperse those peaceably assembled in worship. Rather than reassure his churches that this will not happen, the mayor reaffirmed his unlawful order," Dys argued. "The mayor continues to single out and target the churches of Greenville."
Meanwhile, Zach Smith, a legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation's Meese Center, writing in a commentary posted to the foundation's website on Monday, reminds all city officials throughout the US that believers do have the right to meet for Sunday services despite the pandemic.
Smith notes that "Americans' constitutional rights have not been 'suspended' during this time of crisis."
"To be clear, those seeking to practice their faith communally during this time of crisis should do so responsibly and adhere to recommended social distancing guidance," Smith writes.
"As government officials and citizens continue to confront new situations caused by the current crisis, they must do so responsibly and reflectively, continuing to be a bulwark against encroachments—however well-meaning or unintentional—against our constitutional liberties," he pointed out.
"If they do so, the sincerely held religious beliefs of all people of faith will be better protected, and our country can emerge from the crisis having reaffirmed its commitment to protecting the constitutional rights of all people—during the good times as well as the bad," Smith concluded.
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