Church pushes back after threatened with fine for meeting

Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Michael F. Haverluck (

church and stateAfter being threatened with a fine if it didn't stop conducting drive-in worship services, Central Baptist Church in New York is fighting back by arguing its services do not violate an executive order signed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

On behalf of the church, The Rutherford Institute argues in a letter issued to Massena Police Department Police Chief Adam J. Love that it has every right to hold its drive-in services during the coronavirus pandemic.

"You are mistaken in your assertion that church 'drive-in' worship services are prohibited under New York's current emergency orders and could result in fines," The Rutherford Institute stated in its letter Friday [PDF].

The letter continued: "Although federal and state governments have adopted specific restrictive measures in an effort to decelerate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the current public health situation has not resulted in the suspension of fundamental constitutional rights, such as religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right of assembly."

Charges dropped in Florida church case

Steve Jordahl (

Charges against a Florida pastor who was arrested for holding in-person services have been dropped.

Hillsborough County (Florida) Sheriff Chad Chronister came for Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown on March 30, arrested him and took him to jail. The sheriff then held a press conference where he said the pastor "intentionally and repeatedly chose to disregard the orders set in place by our president, our governor, the CDC, and the Hillsborough County emergency policy group."

But in fact, he had not disregarded orders. Attorney Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel says Brown had spoken with the sheriff's office, and the service "was literally approved by the same sheriff who held the press conference and announced the arrest," the attorney explains.


"The state attorney realized he had absolutely no case and he better stop now before he gets too far down the road," Staver adds.

The case prompted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) to announce that all churches in the Sunshine State would henceforth be allowed to meet publicly. But The River Church in Tampa wasn't able to take advantage of the order.

"They had received death threats," Staver shares, "and because of the concern for the safety of the people as a result of that outrageous press conference, the pastor has wanted to let some time pass before he reopens the church."

But there is some good news out of all this. Sheriff Chronister has since called up Pastor Brown.

"The sheriff reached out, literally, wanting to repair the relationship that he had so desperately destroyed with his wild press conference – and he did," says the Liberty Counsel attorney and founder.

Singling out churches?

Earlier this month, Love informed Pastor Samson Ryman of Central Baptist Church that his church could face a $1,000 fine for being in violation of Cuomo's executive order by holding a drive-in service consisting of 23 people in 18 cars on May 3.

And even though an official fine was not issued, the nonprofit civil liberties organization contends that the police threats breached the church's rights.

"[Police] threats … are grounded in a misunderstanding of the law, and a misapplication of the Governor's Executive Orders, which severely chills their exercise of the fundamental right to practice their religion," The Rutherford Institute asserted. "[E]ven if the governor's executive orders could be construed to apply to church gatherings, application of the gatherings restriction to the church's proposed drive-in worship services would violate the First Amendment's guarantee to free exercise of religion."

Social distancing guidelines were strictly adhered to by the church.

"For its drive-in service, Central Baptist Church required that attendees park in the parking lot and stay in their cars for the worship service," reported.

Pastor Ryman held service on May 3 after being warned about open-air services, yet he received no express order forbidding him to perform drive-in services, so he rejoiced after his worship that day on social media.

"What a gorgeous day the Lord gave us for our first drive-in service!" Ryman exclaimed on Facebook. "Seeing all our members with smiling faces. Oh, how we've missed worship and fellowship with our church family! What a great day! I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'"

But despite the precautions he took to keep his congregants safe and sound in their cars, he posted "CANCELED due to NY COVID executive orders" on Facebook the next week.

"Pastor Ryman would then conduct the service from a porch attached to the church, using a low-power FM transmitter that attendees could tune into with a radio," The Christian Post (CP) explained. "At all times during the worship service, Ryman would remain well over six feet from other church attendees."

The local police department was warned to stop harassing the church.

"In the hopes of avoiding formal legal action, I would strongly advise you to withdraw your threat to enforce the Executive Orders' restrictions on gatherings to Central Bible Baptist Church's drive-in services and allow them to proceed as planned," The Rutherford Institute suggested Love tell the authorities.

First Liberty counsel Keisha Russeell previously responded to an announcement by the executive of Chemung County, New York, Christopher Moss, who announced drive-in church services were not allowed.

"The Constitution forbids the government from singling out churches for restrictions that are not imposed on other entities," Russell declared at the time. "Churches that creatively and safely serve their communities should be applauded, not targeted."

Targeting churches and synagogues

In late March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio targeted Christian and Jewish worship centers that held in-person services – threatening to shut them down if they met.

"A small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance, even though it's so widespread," de Blasio pointed out in a press briefing on March 27. "[If congregations refuse to disperse, the city will] take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently."

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins – who also serves as the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – condemned the NYC mayor for his threat days later.

"De Blasio's incendiary & unconstitutional threat to permanently shut down churches and synagogues must be retracted or corrected if it was a misstatement," Perkins tweeted March 29. "This type of religious hostility is what fuels non-compliance, because it reveals a motive beyond public safety."


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