JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Facing two freedom-of-religion lawsuits and pushback from the U.S. attorney general, a Mississippi mayor said Wednesday that people may attend drive-in church services during the coronavirus pandemic but they must keep their windows up.
Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons also said local churches may allow up to 10 people at a time in a building for worship services that are shown online or carried on TV or radio, as long as those inside the church follow public health guidelines to maintain a safe distance from one another.
Greenville leaders enacted a local order April 7 that said all churches in the city would be closed for in-person and drive-in services as long as Gov. Tate Reeves’s statewide stay-at-home order remains in place to combat the spread of the virus. The governor’s order does not restrict types of worship.
The day after Greenville leaders set the local order, police issued $500 tickets to several people attending drive-in church services. Some who were ticketed said the city was violating their First Amendment right to worship.
Simmons said Monday that the city would not make people pay the $500 tickets — and he also said he had received death threats over the city’s order. The Democratic mayor said he wanted the Republican governor to give clear guidance about how the statewide stay-at-home order affects religious services.
Reeves has said during public appearances in the past two weeks that he does not believe government can ban religious services, but he has also asked pastors and other religious leaders to hold worship services online rather than in person because of the pandemic.
Simmons said Reeves provided clear guidance about worship services Wednesday during a call with mayors.
“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.
During a news conference Wednesday in Jackson, Reeves said that Greenville police made people roll down their windows at drive-in church services to be ticketed.
“The actions taken by an over-burdensome government actually put more people at risk,” Reeves said.
A conservative legal group called Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on Friday challenging the Greenville order as unconstitutional. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr took the rare step of filing papers to side with those suing the city. Reeves tweeted thanks to Barr “for this strong stand in support of religious liberty.”
A similar lawsuit against the city was filed Wednesday by First Liberty Institute, and it is backed by a group that opposes many government regulations, the Mississippi Justice Institute.
An attorney for First Liberty Institute, Jeremy Dys, issued a statement Wednesday thanking Reeves and Simmons “for recognizing the importance of protecting religious liberty by clarifying that drive-in church services are allowed during this difficult time.”
The governor’s statewide stay-at-home order took effect the evening of April 3 and is currently set to expire Monday morning. Reeves said Wednesday that he could decide in the next couple of days whether he will extend the order.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within a few weeks. For some, it can cause more severe illness and even death.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.