Mississippi mayor cancels fines to churchgoers as DOJ intervenes in coronavirus dispute

AG Barr says cities can't single out churches during pandemic lockdown if they let other businesses operate similarly.

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Attorney General William Barr on Feb. 25, 2020
Attorney General William Barr on Feb. 25, 2020
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Last Updated:
April 14, 2020 - 9:47pm

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The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a statement of interest supporting a Greenville, Mississippi, church where some people recently received $500 tickets at a drive-in style service at which they listened to the sermon on their car radios with their windows rolled up amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorney General William Barr emphasized in the statement that social distancing practices are important during the health crisis and that while some temporary restrictions on liberties are constitutional when applied even-handedly, but religious institutions cannot be singled-out.

"The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open," Barr wrote. "The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all [Centers for Disease Control] and state recommendations regarding social distancing."

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said on Monday that those issued citations will not have to pay the fines.

The religious liberty controversy comes as restrictions are placed on activities across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The city of Greenville issued an order on April 7 that barred drive-in church services. The fines were given to people at Temple Baptist Church on April 8. "Only those members who refused to leave were issued citations," the mayor said. 

The mayor also said Monday that the order will remain in place, though he wants "definitive guidance on drive-in and parking lot services" from the state's governor considering both CDC guidelines and the state's shelter-in-place order.