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GREENVILLE, Mississippi, April 16, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) ― After a warning from the Department of Justice, the mayor who fined Christians $500 for attending drive-in church services has reversed his ban on the practice.
Mayor Errick D. Simmons of Greenville, Mississippi attracted sharp criticism, lawsuits, and national notoriety after members of Temple Baptist Church were given citations for attending a worship service from the safety of their cars last Wednesday.
In the wake of the controversy, Simmons first waived the $500 fine on Easter Monday. Now he has also rescinded his April 7 order banning any kind of church service, including drive-in participation, in his city. According to the Associated Press, Greenville residents may now attend church services as long as there are only ten of them in a church at one time or they remain in their cars with the windows closed.
The Governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, was critical of Simmons’ criminalization of public worship, and even filed a memo in support of a lawsuit brought against the City of Greenville by Alliance Defending Freedom. Reeves pointed out at a press conference yesterday that by ticketing the Temple Baptist congregation, the police had put them at risk of infection.
“The actions taken by an over-burdensome government actually put more people at risk,” the governor said.
Simmons said that Reeves had advised Mississippi mayors in a phone conversation that his shelter-in-place order was not meant to suspend all public worship.
“The governor stated today … for the very first time that drive-in church services where families stay in their cars with windows up are safe,” Simmons said.
The mayor also alleged that he has received a death threat.
In support of Temple Baptist Church, the Justice Department stated in its court filing that it became involved in the case because it touched on important issues of religious liberty.
“This case raises issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to free exercise of religion,” it said.
“The allegations in this complaint strongly suggest that the city’s prohibition of drive-in church services, despite the inclusion of measures to reduce the risk such as requiring people to remain in their cars, are neither neutral nor generally applicable,” the Justice Department continued.
“According to the city, ‘ALL businesses and industries deemed essential by state and federal orders’ may continue operations…and the state has designated churches such as the one here as essential,” the filing added. “Nevertheless, the city barred the church from holding services even if the church adheres to CDC and Mississippi COVID-19 guidelines for essential operations.”
The city “appears to permit citizens to sit in a ‘car at a drive-in restaurant with [their] windows rolled down,’ but not ‘at a drive-in church service with [their] windows rolled up,’” the filing stated.
Governor Reeves issued Mississippi’s shelter-in-place order on April 1, but refused to shut down churches.
“Mississippi is not China, and it never will be,” he famously said at the time.
New Mexico Catholics will now also be able to participate in public worship from their cars. Yesterday Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico was the first American prelate to lift a ban on public celebration of the Mass. Baldacchino stipulated that indoor congregations could number only four plus the priest but that larger congregations could assemble outdoors in their cars, either in parish parking lots or in such other open spaces as cemeteries.
“Parishioners should maintain at least a six feet separation at all times,” his guidance states.