The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a statement of interest supporting the Temple Baptist Church of Greenville, Miss. whose congregants were fined for attending a drive-in Easter service in which worshippers listened to the sermon via car radio.
“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,” the DOJ’s filing said. “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 CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing.”
While most U.S. states have imposed restrictions on what they deem nonessential gatherings and businesses in response to the coronavirus pandemic, several, including Mississippi and Florida, have classified houses of worship as essential and allowed them to remain open, while giving local governments the power to fine those who violate regional social-distancing regulations.
“If a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings,” the DOJ asserted. “Religions institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”
The government’s statement of interest is of mainly symbolic importance, because Greenville mayor Erick Simmons on Monday announced that worshippers at the Temple Baptist Church would not be required to pay the fine.