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After lawsuits, uproar over $500 tickets for church members listening to radio sermon in church parking lot, mayor has come-to-Jesus moment

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'The actions taken by an over-burdensome government actually put more people at risk'

Image source: YouTube screenshot

When Errick D. Simmons become mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, in 2016, he looked to keep God at the center of his administration by promoting a faith-based initiative called "Worship on the Water" to bring residents together.

"Psalm 100 demands us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord," Simmons said, according to his page on the city's website. "On the fifth Sunday of every month, residents and citizens come and worship at the water on our levee front to make a joyful noise together in corporate worship. Folks are not restricted by the color of their skin nor confined by their churches' addresses. We come to exalt God as one community."

But these days the noise around Simmons has been anything but joyful.

Church attendance restrictions

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Simmons issued an executive order last week closing all Greenville church buildings for both in-person and drive-in services.

"It's all about trying to save lives," the mayor told the Delta Democrat-Times. "If people continue to gather, it's going to spread."

Well, the day after Simmons' executive order, folks showed up to the parking lot of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville and listened to Pastor Arthur Scott's sermon on the radio in their cars.

Lee Gordon — a 23-year member of the church as well as a representative for the Washington County Board of Supervisors — told the Democrat-Times he and his wife were among those gathered in the church parking lot, and they figured everybody was abiding by coronavirus social distancing guidelines given they were in their cars with the windows rolled up.

But that wasn't the case. Gordon told the paper he and his wife were both issued $500 tickets.

'Somewhere right now in the city of Greenville, real crime is going on'

Another Temple Baptist church member recorded video of police issuing tickets in the parking lot.

"Somewhere right now in the city of Greenville, real crime is going on," the man said from behind the wheel of his vehicle. "They got half of the police squad at Temple Baptist Church. Seventy- and 80-year-old people ... most of them never even had a speeding ticket. But this is a better use of Greenville's resources."

Image source: YouTube screenshot

The man recording the video got a ticket, too.

Image source: YouTube screenshot

"Just handed a ticket by a man with no gloves. He gave me an ink pen to sign it ...," he said, adding that he and other church members were "complying 100% with the governor's ordinance on COVID-19. And they come and force us not to comply. They force us to make human contact. Your city dollars at work for you."

Here's the video:

Police Raid Drive-In Church Service for Elderly, Issue Fines to Entire Congregation youtu.be

Fallout

In the wake of the $500 ticket incident, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit last Friday saying the order banning church services is unconstitutional, the Associated Press reported.

Earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr warned state authorities that social distancing mandates do not include the right to restrict religious organizations more than nonreligious ones. First Liberty Institute also filed a lawsuit against Greenville, the AP said.

Simmons also told the outlet he's received death threats.

A change of heart

Finally the Democratic mayor said Monday the city wouldn't make people pay the $500 tickets but that he wanted Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to give clear guidance about how his statewide stay-at-home order affects religious services, the AP said.

Reeves has said during public appearances in the last two weeks that he doesn't believe government can ban religious services, but he's also asked pastors and other religious leaders to hold worship services online rather than in person, the outlet added.

Simmons said Reeves provided clear guidance about worship services Wednesday during a call with mayors, the AP said.

"The governor stated today ... for the very first time that drive-in church services where families stay in their cars with windows up are safe," he said.

With that, Simmons said people may attend drive-in church services but must keep their windows up, the outlet said, adding that he also said churches may allow up to 10 people at a time in a building for worship services shown online or carried on TV or radio, as long as those inside the church follow public health guidelines to maintain a safe distance from one another.

During a news conference Wednesday, Reeves criticized the fact that Greenville police made motorists roll down their windows at drive-in church services to receive their tickets, the AP reported.

"The actions taken by an over-burdensome government actually put more people at risk," he said.

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