(USA Features) Attorney General William Barr has come down on the side of a Mississippi church that was holding drive-in services until it was shut down by the city’s mayor, suggesting that the ban unfairly targets “religious conduct.”
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons issued and order last week that banned all in-person church services, but it also included drive-in services.
After the order was issued, Greenville police issued citations to members of Temple Baptist Church after they held a service anyway. The citations carried a $500 fine.
In addition, police broke up another service that was held by King James Bible Baptist Church.
Temple Baptist sued on Friday and King James Baptist threatened legal action. Simmons retracted the citations but has left the ban in place.
In a letter, Barr said that while social distancing rules are important at the moment, the Constitution remains in effect such as the First Amendment’s religious freedoms.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr wrote.
“Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
The AG noted that, according to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens,” especially if other institutions are permitted to operate unrestricted.
In the Mississippi churches case, lawyers have noted that while churches have been instructed to close, the drive-in fast-food chain Sonic has been permitted to remain open.
In his letter, Barr singled out the discrepancy in the treatment of the restaurant and the churches as one reason he supports the latter.
“Notably, the city appears to permit citizens to sit in a ‘car at a drive-in restaurant with their windows rolled down,’ but not ‘at a drive-in church service with their windows rolled up,'” Barr wrote. “The church thus alleges that the city has ‘failed to prohibit nonreligious conduct that endangers its interests in a similar or greater degree,’ than drive-in services like the church’s here.”
Based on those allegations, it didn’t make sense why the city would require churches to be closed while allowing drive-in restaurants to remain open, when they “appear to pose an equal — if not greater — risks,” the AG wrote.
He added that “where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest,” concluding that in the Mississippi case, he doesn’t see a compelling reason.