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DOJ Files Memo Supporting Church After Congregants Were Fined for Attending Drive-in Service

The Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a statement of interest on behalf of a Greenville, Mississippi church after its congregants were fined $500 for attending a drive-in service, during which they remained in their cars with the windows rolled up. The DOJ said that the city mayor’s executive order violated the U.S. Constitution’s free exercise clause.

The Temple Baptist Church filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging religious discrimination after the mayor issued an executive order titled “Executive Order Regarding Church Services,” which barred churches from holding drive-in services until the Governor’s shelter in place order had been lifted.

The mayor issued the order despite the Mississippi governor having already designated all churches and religious entities as “essential businesses” provided they adhere to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The church, which does not have a website or the ability to stream services online, broadcasted its service over a “low-power FM station for its parishioners who gather in their cars in the church’s parking lot” and were required to remain in their cars at all times with the windows rolled up.

According to the DOJ, despite following CDC guidelines, the city dispatched eight uniformed police officers to the church last week who began knocking on car windows, demanding driver’s licenses, and writing citations with $500 fines.

“The allegations in the complaint strongly suggest that the city’s prohibition of drive-in church services, despite the inclusion of measures to reduce risk such as requiring people to remain in their cars, are neither neutral nor generally applicable,” the DOJ wrote. “The church alleges facts tending to show that conduct is being permitted for various secular reasons when equivalent conduct is being forbidden to churches holding drive-in services. Notably, 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.’”

Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday backed the church in a statement, saying the government “may not impose special restrictions” on religious gatherings.

“As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest,” said Barr. “The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions.”

See below for the full DOJ filing:

DOJ Mississippi Memo by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via ABC screengrab]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.