Devastating Mississippi church fire investigated as arson

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The First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs in Mississippi burned down early Wednesday morning. The congregation had been in a legal battle to continue holding services despite the novel coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown orders.

The building went up in flames between 2-4 a.m. Investigators said the church was spray-painted with graffiti before an explosion blew out the front of the building, according to Fox 13.  Maj. Kelly McMillian of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the fire to be a criminal act of arson.

Thomas More Society senior counsel and lawyer for the church, Stephen Crampton, spoke with Fox News about the fire and said the perpetrators spray-painted a message that read, "I Bet you stay home now you hypokrits."

"We're in a time where I don't think it's any secret that there's a growing hostility toward churches, across the board," Crampton said. "And now, here are churches like First Pentecostal that are sort of stirring up the waters by being outspoken and somewhat firm about seeking to protect their Constitutional rights."

He added, "They've had bad comments [sent their way] on social media. ... There is just a segment that takes issue with the church standing up, and the church just being the church."

Crampton represented First Pentecostal in court after its pastor Jerry Waldrop was cited for holding Easter Sunday services. The Thomas More Society also claimed police disrupted a Bible study group held 10 days after the citation.

FEDERAL JUDGE SAYS MISSISSIPPI CHURCH CAN HOLD DRIVE-IN SERVICES

Last month, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills issued an order allowing First Pentecostal to stay open for drive-thru services.

“These were outrageous violations of these parishioners’ rights,” Crampton said at the time of the ruling. “On both occasions, Holly Springs law enforcement personnel ignored the fact that all church members present were practicing social distancing and complying with all applicable health requirements. Bible study attendees were threatened with criminal citations for violation of Holly Springs’ Stay Home Order.”

He added: “Due to the threats and the citation of Pastor Waldrop, the church members were fearful of holding services on Sunday and exercising their constitutionally protected rights.”

In the drive-thru ruling from Mills, the court said it “acknowledges that the First Amendment guarantee of the Free Exercise of religion is one of the most important ones set forth in the Bill of Rights, and, without question, it grants the Church, in this case, the right to assert certain rights which, say, a barbershop would have no right to assert.”

Crampton said the church has mostly been battling local leaders on the issue and not the governor's office, specifically citing Mayor Kelvin Buck and the city council as the main opposition. He also said the case to hold full church services is still pending and that he and his client were awaiting a ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals when the fire happened.

"The church has long been wanting to resume in-person meetings," he explained. "But the city continues to impose what we believe is not only an unconstitutional but illegal order under our state law, which says local municipalities and government entities cannot impose restrictions that are more severe than what the governor has imposed. And the governor has, from the getgo, declared churches as essential business and operations.

"The local order is set to expire June 3 and it looks like we couldn't even get a hearing before then if we stayed in the lower court," Crampton continued. "So we filed an emergency appeal and request for an injunction pending appeal. ... We expect a ruling from the 5th Circuit, hopefully by Friday."

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The ruling may come too late, however, as the church has been completely destroyed by the fire and is currently unusable for services.

Fox News reached out to Mayor Buck's office about the incident but did not receive a reply to the request for comment.