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AG Barr And Conservatives Striking Back At Church Lockdowns

Louisville Churches
Conservative patience with the extra-constitutional Wuhan virus lockdowns finally reached the breaking point on Easter, when elected officials across the country (mostly Democrats, but a few Republicans) chose to use the alleged epidemic as an excuse to trample on religious liberty.

Among the worst was Mayor Errick Simmons of Greenville, Mississippi, who directed city police to raid a drive-in prayer meeting at Temple Baptist Church. The mostly elderly congregation was slapped with $500 fines for violating the city’s ban on mass gatherings.

Our friend Todd Starnes reports that yesterday the Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest in support of the church’s lawsuit against the city.

“The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open,” the Attorney General said in a statement. “The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing.”

The First Liberty Institute represents Pastor Charleston Hamilton and King James Bible Baptist Church (“KJBBC”) in Greenville, another church targeted by Mayor Simmons. You can read the letter in its entirety through this link.

In its letter to Mayor Simmons, First Liberty explains that, “Your prohibition of religious gatherings of this type and the ticketing of participants, regardless of the precautions taken, is forbidden under both federal and Mississippi state law.  Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Act (“MRFA”) prohibits government officials from substantially burdening religious exercise without demonstrating that the restriction imposed advances a compelling interest by the least restrictive means.   The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause imposes a similar standard when government action targets religious exercise.  We require Greenville, Mississippi to withdraw the unconstitutional order that, disturbingly, targets religious exercise.”

First Liberty and a Louisville law firm representing On Fire Christian Center also won a Temporary Restraining Order before Federal District Judge Justin Walker, who enjoined Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s ban on “religious services, even if the congregants remain in their cars during the service.”

Our friends at Liberty Counsel report the Court enjoined “Louisville from enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire [Christian Center].”

Judge Walker begin his opinion by stating: “On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the continued celebration of Easter.” The order continues: “That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps on the pages of The Onion.”

Judge Walker stated: “The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”

The Court noted that the Louisville Mayor and Kentucky Gov. Beshear ordered the police to record the licenses plates of each vehicle parked in a church parking lot, accompanied by a notice that the owners of the car would be contacted by the public health department requiring quarantine of each occupant for 14-days.

The Court ruled that the ban on drive-in church violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause. “Louisville has targeted religious worship by prohibiting drive-in church services, while not prohibiting a multitude of other non-religious drive-ins and drive-throughs – including, for example, drive-through liquor stores. Moreover, Louisville has not prohibited parking in parking lots more broadly – including, again, the parking lots of liquor stores. When Louisville prohibits religious activity while permitting non-religious activities, its choice ‘must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny.’”

The Court rejected the argument that the members of the church could participate in an online service. The Court stated, “some members may not have access to online services. And even if they all did, the Free Exercise Clause protects their right to worship as their conscience commands them. It is not the role of the court to tell religious believers what is and isn’t important to their religion, so long as their belief in the religious importance is sincere. The Free Exercise Clause protects sincerely held religious beliefs that are at times not ‘acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others.’”

In a statement posted to the organization’s website Liberty Counsel Senior Pastor, Founder and Chairman Mathew D. Staver said, aside from the positive result, the court order is a powerful reminder of the history of religious freedom in America that fully exposed the discriminatory nature of the order issued by Louisville’s mayor.

The city allowed the parking lots of Home Depot and liquor stores to be jam-packed but banned churches from having parking lot Easter services. The judge wrote that the discriminatory treatment was clearly unconstitutional.

In another case in Louisville, police recorded the license plate numbers of cars in a church parking lot and issued a notice that every occupant in the car and whoever they came in contact with would be quarantined for 14 days. But, one mile from the church, the parking lots of many commercial stores were nearly filled to capacity.

If Easter celebrants would have spent Easter Sunday buying supplies at Walmart or Home Depot, they would have been free and clear. But, because they were celebrating our risen Lord and Savior, they are now in legal jeopardy and could be forced to quarantine for two weeks, whether or not they were exposed to the virus.

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