Religion

In Some Places, Easter Isn’t Being Celebrated. It’s Being Fined.

Members of the Victory Christian Ministries International attend an Easter Sunday church service in the church’s parking lot in Temple Hills, Md., as the spread of the coronavirus continues, April 12, 2020. (Michael A. McCoy/Reuters)
Some local officials have come after religious organizations with unseemly zeal.

For Christians, Easter is a time to celebrate resurrection. But it’s been hard for some Americans to do that because their local officials are bent on suppressing their observance of the holiday.

Consider members of the King James Bible Baptist Church of Greenville, Miss. Last Wednesday night the church held a drive-in service using a low-frequency radio-station signal. Everyone in the parking lot kept their windows up. Attendees were quickly surrounded by police cars ordering them to leave. About two minutes into the video you can hear a police officer yelling “Your rights are suspended!”

At least one other local  church was also targeted. Lee Gordon of Greenville’s Temple Baptist Church told WREG-TV that “the police started coming up and we said, ‘We think we’re within our rights.’ So they started issuing tickets, $500 tickets. . . . I don’t know, it may have been 20 to 30 tickets. Everybody got one. It wasn’t per car. Me and my wife was in a car together and both of us got tickets.”

In some places, the police are actually directly entering churches. Last Sunday, a police officer in Chincoteague, Va., entered the Lighthouse Fellowship and was upset they were holding a church service for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that seats 293. He ordered that, per Governor Ralph Northam’s order, no more than ten people could participate in the service. After it was finished, two police officers entered the service, gave the pastor a criminal summons, and told him that if he dared to conduct an Easter service, everyone attending would be given one. Many of the same political figures who would never tolerate police entering churches that are giving illegal immigrants sanctuary cheered the police’s enforcement action.

I’m happy to report there is pushback against some of the more boneheaded enforcement actions.  In Louisville, Ky., mayor Greg Fischer warned Christians that anyone attending drive-in Easter Sunday services will be forced to quarantine for 14 days. Police officers have been told to take down attendees’ license-plate numbers to enforce the quarantine.

On Saturday night, U.S. district-court judge Justin Walker granted a temporary restraining order against the mayor’s order. “The Mayor’s decision is stunning,” Walker wrote. “And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”

Judge Walker isn’t the only one concerned with the overreaching of local and state officials. A Justice Department spokesman announced last Friday that it is closely “monitoring” the situation. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly [and] not single out religious [organizations],” DOJ director of communications Kerri Kupec tweeted.

Two nonprofit organizations, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the First Liberty Institute, are filing lawsuits on behalf of several churches that have been threatened with criminal sanctions. Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, told Fox News that orders like the one issued by Louisville’s mayor are highly discriminatory. “It targets churches in a way that it targets no other group,” he said. “Cars in parking lots are fine. It’s only a crime if the cars in the parking lot are at the church parking lot.”

Almost everyone agrees churches that openly flout social-distancing orders and allow members to be in very close proximity can’t be tolerated. But it is in times of crisis like this that many people most need the ministrations of clergy and the hope that religion provides. If we forget that, we forget the reason the Founders made freedom of religion the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights.

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