At least 20 police officers reportedly showed up outside a small church in Greenville, Mississippi, on Wednesday, threatening the pastor for hosting drive-in services.
Through the religious freedom legal group First Liberty Counsel, King James Bible Baptist Church Pastor Charleston Hamilton sent a letter to Mayor Errick Simmons, claiming the city had infringed on religious liberty.
“Your recent order prohibiting drive-in services leaves him in reasonable fear that he and his church members will be fined and criminally prosecuted for merely engaging in drive-in church services that fall well within the CDC guidelines,” read the letter. “We require Greenville, Mississippi, to withdraw the unconstitutional order that, disturbingly, targets religious exercise.”
All of this is in response to an order issued Tuesday by Simmons, who claimed drive-in church services — even if social distancing measures are appropriately observed — violate Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ statewide shelter-in-place order.
The city’s ban on drive-in church gatherings like the one hosted at King James Bible Baptist Church, where congregants didn’t even get out of their vehicles, will remain in place until Reeves ends the restrictions established to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Hamilton, though, has no plans to back down. He is still planning to host a drive-in Easter service this Sunday.
The pastor posted about the incident on Facebook Live, showing viewers the numerous police squad cars in his church’s parking lot.
“I’m a good citizen here. I’m a pastor,” he said. “We ain’t got no crack house. We ain’t got no drugs. We ain’t got nothing going on here but preaching the word of God.”
“They are here messing with the church, messing with the pastor,” Hamilton continued. “Who’s patrolling the streets where the real crime is?”
Hamilton’s church is not the only congregation facing the crackdown.
The parking lot of another Greenville church, Temple Baptist, was full this Wednesday when police showed up, according to the Delta Democrat-Times.
Temple Baptist members were remaining in their vehicles with their windows rolled up as they listened to Pastor Arthur Scott preach through a low-power FM frequency. The church has also been streaming services online, though many of the older congregants don’t have access to computers or the internet.
Lee Gordon, a 23-year member of the church, told the Democrat-Times he was confident his church was doing all the right things to protect its parishioners. But they paid for it nonetheless.
Gordon, who is also a representative for the Washington County Board of Supervisors, said he and his wife were both issued $500 citations for attending the drive-in church gathering.
“I think somebody called the police,” he explained. “And we were just doing the same thing we’ve been doing the last three weeks.”
Just like King James Bible Baptist Church, though, Gordon said his congregation plans to host a drive-in Easter service this weekend.
He also pointed out to the newspaper that his church has been penalized for doing exactly the same thing as a nearby Sonic Drive-In, where people drive around — and park — freely.
“There’s 25 cars 200 yards away all in the same place at the Sonic Drive-In,” he said. “What we’re doing endangers nobody.”