Faced with two federal lawsuits filed against him and his city, Mayor Errick Simmons of Greenville, Mississippi has agreed to remove his threat of fines and arrests for churches holding parking lot services. Citizens already given tickets will not be required to pay the $500 fine that went along with them. The mayor’s announcement came after a conference call with Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves and the state’s mayors.
In that call, the governor made it clear that drive-in services were “safe,” according to Mayor Simmons, so long as parishioners kept their car windows up.
The governor had clarified in previous public statements that he didn’t believe the government had the authority to order closures of worship services, so it’s unclear why the mayor took it upon himself to prohibit all services, including drive-in services.
The Greenville mayor’s position was so untenable, it even drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who sided against the mayor by filing a “statement of interest” in one of the two federal lawsuits filed by local churches.
First Liberty Institute, whose lawyers represent Pastor Charles Hamilton, Jr and the King James Bible Baptist Church in one of the lawsuits filed against Greenville and Mayor Simmons, released a public statement after hearing the news:
“We thank Governor Reeves and Mayor Simmons for recognizing the importance of protecting religious liberty by clarifying that drive-in church services are allowed during this difficult time. Pastor Hamilton looks forward to being able to continue to meet the spiritual needs of his congregation while also abiding by public health guidelines and the Governor’s policy.”
The other lawsuit involves Temple Baptist Church, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). This is the case in which the DOJ filed its statement of interest. ADF’s Ryan Tucker, senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries, in an email to The Daily Citizen, took a cautiously optimistic tone about the mayor’s recent change of heart:
“We are pleased to see that the City of Greenville is moving in the right direction, but the mayor indicated that revision of this unconstitutional order would not be considered until next Tuesday. Our concern continues to be that the church was singled out and is being treated worse than bars and restaurants in the area. But we look forward to seeing the changes the city votes on and will evaluate further at that time.”
With more drive-in services scheduled for Sunday, everyone will be watching the city’s actions closely.