One day after the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest supporting a Mississippi church in its lawsuit against the city government for a ban on drive-in worship services, the mayor relented, saying those types of gatherings are now acceptable.
“Today, given the definitive guidance from the governor, in the city of Greenville we will allow drive-in and parking lot services in the city – so long as families stay in their cars with windows up,” Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said Wednesday in a press conference.
The Democratic mayor said his decision came after speaking with Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who told local leaders across the state that drive-in services are OK so long as social distancing guidelines are followed.
Prior to speaking with the mayors, however, Reeves took notice of the DOJ’s statement of interest.
“The City appears to have … singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing,” Attorney General Bill Barr said Tuesday, adding that the same restrictions were not in place for citizens going to drive-in restaurants “even with their windows open.”
“[E]ven 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,” Barr said. “Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
Simmons said up to 10 people could gather inside churches if social distancing guidelines were in place.
“Churches are still strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call and any and all other electronic, social media, streaming telephonic platforms available for the safety and protection of life,” he added.