WASHINGTON — The Justice Department lent its support on Tuesday to a Mississippi church that was penalized for holding drive-in services in defiance of a local order to slow the spread of the coronavirus and said that the order was applied unevenly and infringed on the congregants’ First Amendment rights.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement.
While the Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., is relatively small, the Justice Department’s support is in keeping with Mr. Barr’s aggressive defense of religious freedom and assertions that Christianity is core to American democracy. Mr. Barr has said that he believes the nation needs a “moral renaissance” and that Judeo-Christian values are key to a functioning society.
In a so-called statement of interest, the Justice Department said that it was supporting the Temple Baptist Church in its lawsuit against Greenville and its mayor, Errick Simmons. The city imposed fines of $500 and citations last week on anyone who attended a midweek service where parishioners stayed in their cars to listen to music and a sermon on the radio, according to the lawsuit, but allowed residents to visit drive-in restaurants. The city has since withdrawn the fines.
“The mayoral order targeting and banning drive-in church services is outrageous and unconstitutional,” said Nathan Kellum, a lawyer representing the church. He said that the order discriminated against the exercise of religious freedoms because it did not also apply to the nearby drive-in restaurant.
Mr. Simmons said that his office was doing its best to contain the virus and save lives in the middle of a pandemic. “The Council received many calls about violations of in-person church services and drive-in church services because church members got out of their cars,” he said. “Until the Council reconsiders or changes the current order, it stands. People are dying.”
When it shuttered businesses and all nonessential travel to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the State of Mississippi deemed churches essential businesses that could operate under federal guidelines on social distancing.
But Greenville issued its own order executive order on church services that banned all in-person and drive-in gatherings.
Like other churches across the nation, Temple Baptist offered drive-in services so that parishioners could worship together while separated and protected inside their cars. “Government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity,” Mr. Barr said.
The willingness of Mr. Barr, a practicing Catholic, to lend the Justice Department’s support to religious organizations and schools and his remarks on the topic have made him a hero to the religious right. In a speech last fall at Notre Dame Law School, he accused secularists of working for the “organized destruction” of religion.
And he said in a speech at the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual convention this year that American democracy springs from “Augustinian Christianity,” which he defined as a belief that people live for their eternal destiny in a peaceful heaven at the same time that they exist in a wicked world that must be restrained by the state, a “necessary evil, with the limited function of keeping the peace here on earth.”
During a news conference on Monday, Mr. Simmons said that he was waiting for further guidance on drive-in services and would not say whether he would rescind his order.
He said that strict stay-at-home measures were necessary to protect hospitals from being overrun by sick patients. He said that the city had 53 diagnosed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and only 24 designated coronavirus and ICU hospital beds.
Temple Baptist is one of at least two churches to sue over restrictions imposed on religious gatherings during the pandemic. On Monday the pastor and parishioners at Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana, Calif., sued the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials over California’s restrictions on religious gatherings.