Washington — The Department of Justice signaled its support for a Mississippi church whose members were fined for attending drive-in services in defiance of a local stay-at-home order, the latest example of the Trump administration's willingness to wade into local disputes over religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, filed a federal lawsuit against the city after congregants were fined $500 for attending a service in their cars in the church's parking lot.
In its complaint, the church described how it has adapted services to adhere to social distancing requirements. The church doesn't have a website to livestream services, so members planned to meet in the parking lot, staying in their vehicles with the windows rolled up while the pastor delivered a sermon broadcast over the radio from inside the empty church.
"The pastor thought it would be a creative way to continue with services in these difficult times," Nate Kellum, chief counsel for the Center for Religious Expression who is representing the church, said in a statement.
Mississippi's statewide shelter-in-place order doesn't apply to churches, but the mayor of Greenville signed an executive order on April 7 deeming churches non-essential and ordering them to remain closed until the state order is lifted.
Police officers came to break up the service the next day, the Wednesday before Easter. Kellum said fewer than 20 people were in attendance, all of whom stayed in their cars. The complaint said police "began knocking on car windows, demanding driver's licenses, and writing citations with $500 fines."
The church filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi on April 10, alleging the city had singled out the church in violation of the First and 14th Amendments, since nearby restaurants were allowed to continue drive-in service.
Attorney General William Barr announced Tuesday that the department was monitoring the case and had filed a 14-page "statement of interest" in support of the church's suit.
"The facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the city's actions target religious conduct," Justice Department attorneys wrote in the statement to the court. "If proven, these facts establish a free exercise violation unless the city demonstrates that its actions are neutral and apply generally to nonreligious and religious institutions or satisfies the demanding strict scrutiny standard."
Barr said Tuesday that the department "will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions."
The government noted that federal, state and local governments must strike a delicate balance during an emergency like a pandemic, weighing constitutional liberties against drastic safety measures needed to stop the spread of the virus, like business closures and curfews.
"Courts reviewing a challenge to a measure responding to the 'society-threatening epidemic' of COVID-19 should be vigilant to protect against clear invasions of constitutional rights while ensuring they do 'not second-guess the wisdom or efficacy of the measures' enacted by the democratic branches of government, on the advice of public health experts," the government attorneys wrote, citing a recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In this case, the department argued the burden falls on the city of Greenville to show its order does not single out religious services like those at the Temple Baptist Church.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons did not immediately respond to CBS News' request for comment, but denied targeting the church during a press conference on Monday.
"To suggest that I would take an action to unlawfully deny someone the practice of his or her faith is ridiculous," he said.
"This order was put in place for the sole purpose to save lives and prevent the spread of COVID-19, specifically linked to church gatherings," Simmons continued. "These incidents have been taken out of context. It is a misrepresentation of our officers, it is a misrepresentation of this council, it is a misrepresentation of this mayor."
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