Alarmed by ticket-writing police officers, church pastors in a Mississippi town are demanding the constitutional right to assemble despite strict rules imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cell phone video, recorded at the Temple Baptist Church service and posted to Facebook, shows City of Greenville police officers issuing tickets to churchgoers in the parking lot as Pastor Arthur Scott preaches inside the church using a low-power FM frequency.
According to Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Temple Baptist, eight uniformed police officers showed up and issued $500 fines to churchgoers for violating a ban on church gatherings that was initiated by the city’s mayor, Errick Simmons.
Greenville, a river town of approximately 30,000, is located in the Delta region of the state.
In a separate, similar incident in Greenville, Pastor Charles Hamilton video-recorded police officers (see video below) shutting down a drive-in service that had yet to start at King James Bible Church.
"I'm a good citizen,” the pastor says as his cell phone records the line of police cruisers. “I ain't breaking no law. I ain't selling no drugs. I'm just preaching the word of God, and look at all these police cars here.”
When the pastor confronts police officers about their actions, one officer tells him “your rights are suspended” by “order of the governor.”
Yet the police action was initiated by Mayor Simmons, a Democrat, who issued the closure of churches in an April 7 edict that was apparently being enforced by the city's police department.
Mississippi’s governor is Tate Reeves, a first-term Republican who has been criticized by some public officials for moving slowly to issue statewide closures. Reeves responded to the Greenville incidents by predicting Mississippians will “revolt” if police officers are used to enforce social distancing.
“Don’t trample the constitution,” Reeves stated via Twitter.
“Our rights don't come from authority. It comes from the Bible," Hamilton told the police officers. "So the authority does not have right over the Constitution.”
ADF attorney Ryan Tucker says a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Temple Baptist, and ADF is seeking a temporary restraining order to stop Mayor Simmons’ executive order that initiated the police action.
"What's interesting about this case is that 200 yards away from this church is a Sonic Drive-In,” Tucker points out. “So can you go get a burger down at Sonic but you can't, on a Sunday, pull into your own church and listen to the Word preached without the possibility of getting a ticket."
Ryan says ADF is being contacted by numerous churches “coast to coast,” in cities both large and small, seeking legal help.
"If the government has the power to issue an order on hours' notice,” the ADF attorney warns, “and say that you don't have the right to go and freely worship God in the creative fashion that these folks that this small church did in rural Mississippi, I mean, that should be frightening and eye-opening to everyone in the United States.”
ADF reported on Tuesday afternoon that the Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest that urges the court to rule in favor of Temple Baptist Church. "We appreciate the DOJ's support for our position that this type of government action isn't necessary to protect health and safety," Tucker states.
Editor's note: Last paragraph added after story was originally posted.
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