Congregation members in Mississippi went to a drive-in service at their church last Wednesday, the same as they had for the past three weeks. But instead of finding the Lord’s peace in a time of trouble, they got slapped with $500 tickets, instead.
According to the Delta Democrat-Times, Temple Baptist Church in Greenville has been holding the parking lot services in their church parking lot since the coronavirus outbreak precluded them from meeting in person due to social distancing guidelines. But because many of their members are elderly and have trouble live-streaming services in their homes, the church has begun holding "drive-in" services, streaming the pastor's message through low-frequency FM radio into congregants’ cars as they gather, windows rolled up and spaced appropriately apart, throughout the church parking lot.
Then, last Wednesday night, worshippers said police showed up to their service and told everyone to disperse, then began handing out $500 tickets to every individual who stayed, saying the church was reportedly violating a local ordinance that prohibited religious gatherings during the shutdown.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons maintains the restrictions are “for the safety of our citizens,” saying the church violated the order, which explicitly included drive-in services under the newly banned gatherings.
“It's all about trying to save lives," the mayor told the Democrat-Times. "If people continue to gather, it's going to spread."
But congregants who received the hefty fines said the order doesn’t make any sense, given that all the worshippers were sitting within their own vehicles and safely separated from one another via glass windows and plenty of space. One perplexed church-goer said that the only time he had any physical contact with anyone during the service was when the police officer walked up without wearing any gloves, ordered him to roll down his window, handed him a ticket, and then gave him an ink pen to sign it with.
“Just handed a ticket by a man with no gloves. He gave me an ink pen to sign it,” he said.
The man went on to say he and his fellow congregants thought they were complying with the order because they weren’t making any contact with anyone, “And [the police] come and force us not to comply. They force us to make human contact. Your city dollars at work for you."
Lee Gordon, who's attended Temple Baptist for 23 years, pointed out that more than 25 cars were gathered at the local Sonic just down the street from the church, but no one was being ticketed there.
"There's 25 cars 200 yards away all in the same place at the Sonic Drive-In. What we're doing endangers nobody," he said.
The First Liberty Institute is now representing Charles Hamilton Jr., pastor of King James Bible Baptist Church, another church that’s halted in-person services, but has reportedly refused to comply with orders to stop holding drive-in meetings. Attorneys say there is no legal basis for ticketing congregants for gathering in ways that comply with disease-prevention guidelines like social distancing and zero physical contact.
"Protecting religious liberty is essential, even during a pandemic," Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty, told the station. "Americans can tolerate a lot, if it means demonstrating love for their fellow man, but they will not — nor should not — tolerate churchgoers being ticketed by the police for following CDC guidelines at church. This has to stop now."