DOJ intervenes in Mississippi drive-in church case, says city's actions 'target religious conduct'

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EXCLUSIVE: The Justice Department intervened in a Mississippi church’s lawsuit by saying in a court filing that it "strongly suggests that the city’s actions target religious conduct" after the church sued police for ticketing congregants during a drive-in service amid coronavirus, Fox News has learned.

The Justice Department is siding with Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., after Greenville police officers began issuing $500 tickets to congregants who refused to leave a parking lot where the church was holding a drive-in service.

In the statement of interest obtained exclusively by Fox News on Tuesday, the Justice Department said the U.S. regularly files statements of interest on “important issues of religious liberty in courts at every level, from trial courts to the Supreme Court of the United States.” It noted that Attorney General Bill Barr has “issued comprehensive guidance interpreting religious-liberty protections” under the Constitution.

"Today, the Department filed a Statement of Interest in support of a church in Mississippi that allegedly sought to hold parking lot worship services, in which congregants listened to their pastor preach over their car radios, while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot with their windows rolled up," Attorney General Bill Barr said Tuesday. "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."

He added: "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."

MISSISSIPPI CHURCH SUES POLICE AFTER CONGREGANTS TICKETED DURING DRIVE-IN SERVICE

The Justice Department's intervention comes after the church filed a lawsuit with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), challenging Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons' April 7 executive order that prohibits drive-in church services until a statewide shelter-in-place order is lifted.

The filing stated that the case "raises issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to free exercise of religion."

“The allegations in this complaint strongly suggest that the city’s prohibition of drive-in church services, despite the inclusion of measures to reduce the risk such as requiring people to remain in their cars, are neither neutral nor generally applicable,” the Justice Department said.

The filing argues the allegations suggest the city singled out churches for distinctive treatment "not imposed on other entities the state has designated as essential services.”

“According to the city, ‘ALL businesses and industries deemed essential by state and federal orders’ may continue operations…and the state has designated churches such as the one here as essential,” the filing continued. “Nevertheless, the city barred the church from holding services even if the church adheres to CDC and Mississippi COVID-19 guidelines for essential operations.”

The filing also argues that churches are “forbidden” to hold “drive-in services” but that “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.’”

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The filing went on to state that the church’s complaint "strongly suggest that there are no such differences and that the city should allow the church to hold its drive-in services."

"Under strict scrutiny, the city has the burden to demonstrate that prohibiting the small church here from holding the drive-in services at issue here -- services where attendees are required to remain in their cars in the church parking lot at all times with their windows rolled up and spaced consistent with CDC guidelines -- is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest," the filing states. "As of now, it seems unlikely that the city will be able to carry that burden."

Religious services have become a contentious issue as governments prohibit large gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The Justice Department maintained that the facts alleged in the church's complaint "strongly suggest that the city’s actions target religious conduct."

"If proven, these facts establish a free exercise violation unless the city demonstrates that its actions are neutral and apply generally to nonreligious and religious institutions or satisfies the demanding strict scrutiny standard," the filing read.

"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 said in a statement.

"Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans.  This is true more so than ever during this difficult time.  The pandemic has changed the ways Americans live their lives," he continued. "Religious communities have rallied to the critical need to protect the community from the spread of this disease by making services available online and in ways that otherwise comply with social distancing guidelines."

Barr added: "The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions."

The church had been conducting the services for the past three weeks in accordance with social distancing rules, the Alliance Defending Freedom said. Simmons' ban orders church buildings closed for in-person and drive-in services.

“Churches are strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, and any and all other social media, streaming and telephonic platforms,” the mayor’s office said in a press release last week.

But the governor’s shelter-in-place order did not place a specific ban on drive-in services.

"Thank you to the Trump administration and Attorney General Bill Barr for this strong stand in support of religious liberty," Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Tuesday. "The government cannot shut down churches. Mississippi is not China. This is still America. We will help support this any way we can."

The Justice Department’s intervention in the Mississippi case also comes after a federal judge, in a similar case, sided with a church in Kentucky.

On Fire Christian Church had sued mayor of Louisville, Ky. Greg Fischer and the city after Fischer announced drive-in style religious gatherings were not allowed on Easter.

U.S. District Judge Justin Walker sided with the church, saying that the city is prohibited from “enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire.”

Fox News' Louis Casiano, Michael Ruiz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.