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Church that defied stay-at-home orders burned to the ground in suspected arson

A church in Mississippi burned down this week and the incident is now being investigated as arson, the Marshall County Sheriff's Office confirmed to CBS News First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs had previously defied stay-at-home orders to open for services, and the church even sued the city of Holly Springs for trying to shut down a Bible study gathering.

Investigators said they found graffiti on the church property reading: "Bet you stay home now you hypokrites."

"I am heartbroken and furious," Governor Tate Reeves tweeted on Thursday, sharing a photo of the now-destroyed First Pentecostal Church. "In Mississippi, a church was just burned to the ground. They had been trying to open services."

"What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country," his tweet continued.

In April, First Pentecostal Church sued the city, claiming that Holly Springs police officers disrupted a "peaceful mid-week Bible Study and shut it down on threat of criminal citations for violation of Holly Springs' Stay Home Order, despite the fact that Plaintiffs were practicing social distancing and complying with all applicable health requirements," according to the lawsuit.

The church also claims that police officers interrupted a worship service on Easter Sunday and issued a citation to Pastor Jerry Waldrop for violating the stay-at-home order. "Plaintiffs seek immediate and long-term relief from this unconstitutional order," the suit continues.

In his response to the suit, Judge Michael P. Mills said he's concerned the church has been "proceeding in an excessively reckless and cavalier manner and with insufficient respect for the enormity of the health crisis which the Covid-19 pandemic presents."

Mills also said the church's members staged "a mass visit to Walmart weeks ago," which was captured on video, "merely to make a point in their dispute with the City." 

"This court considers the visit depicted in the video to have been highly reckless in light of the ongoing pandemic, and it frankly suspects that plaintiff's members regard this controversy as a game of sorts and enjoy the publicity attendant to it," Mills writes. 

Holly Springs is now allowing drive-in church services.

A number of churches around the country have pushed back against stay-at-home orders that impose limits on public gatherings, including religious services. The restrictions are meant to keep people safe and reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but some church leaders contend they violate religious freedom.

The Associated Press reports Mississippi's safer-at-home order, which is set to expire Monday, allows churches to operate as essential businesses but limits the size of indoor gatherings. Governor Reeves issued "Safe Worship" guidelines this week with steps congregations can take to more safely restart services inside their buildings.

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