As many churches plan to host drive-in services, which do not violate social distancing rules, on Easter Sunday, some states appear to be in a conundrum over whether such gatherings could spread the new coronavirus and should be banned.
Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, Kentucky, has prohibited churches from having drive-in services, but the religious liberty law film First Liberty Institute has written to him on behalf of On Fire Christian Church urging him to reverse the decision, according to Fox Wilmington.
“The prohibition of drive-in church services goes beyond those guidelines … and unlawfully targets houses of worship,” First Liberty’s senior counsel Roger Byron was quoted as saying. “Many churches across the nation are holding drive-in services to balance the spiritual and physical health of their communities.”
The mayor responded in a video message, saying, “It’s not really practical or safe to accommodate drive-up services taking place in our community. Think about this on Sunday morning: There would be hundreds of thousands of people driving around our community.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, is backing the ban, according to Louisville Courier-Journal.
In response to the possibility of some Kentucky churches holding in-person services, the governor warned that if people attend those services, authorities will record their license plate numbers and they will be turned in to local health departments. Residents would then be ordered to quarantine for 14 days.
Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul denounced the plan to record and turn in Christians' license plate numbers. In a post on Twitter he wrote, “Taking license plates at church? Quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday? Someone needs to take a step back here.”
In North Carolina, the Wilmington Police Department has acknowledged that drive-in services are not a violation of social distancing rules, but only after Coastal Legal Counsel challenged the police’s interpretation of the law.
The Wilmington Police Department had earlier said in a statement: “With Easter Sunday just three days away, some area Pastors are asking whether or not ‘drive-in’ services are allowed under current Governor’s Executive Orders and local Declarations. These Orders and Declarations prohibit any event or convening that brings together more than 10 individuals in one place (indoor or outdoor) at one time. This prohibition includes ‘drive-in’ services,” according to Port City Daily.
The department has now changed its stance but continues to “encourage” online services, citing local health officials’ concerns that ‘drive-in’ services could be “unnecessarily risky.”
“While the Governor has advised local municipalities to follow the advice of local health officials, it is the Governor’s interpretation of his own order that ‘drive-in’ worship services should be allowed if sufficient safety precautions are met,” it said.
In Mississippi, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons has banned drive-in services. However, First Liberty is representing King James Bible Baptist Church in the city to ask Simmons to lift the ban.
Governor Tate Reeves’ Shelter In Place Order and the Mississippi Department of Health guideline state, “Because of recent COVID-19 cases specifically linked to church gatherings, it is vital that Mississippians not attend in-person church services at any church or other type of facility. Services, weddings, and funerals are leading to greater COVID-19 transmission.”
“Your recent order prohibiting drive-in services leaves him in reasonable fear that he and his church members will be fined and criminally prosecuted for merely engaging in drive-in church services that fall well within the CDC guidelines,” the law firm said in a letter to Simmons, according to Washington Examiner. “We require Greenville, Mississippi, to withdraw the unconstitutional order that, disturbingly, targets religious exercise.”
The church said its congregation remained in their cars during services and pastor Charleston Hamilton also maintained the proper 6-foot social distancing requirements while preaching.
The church says it will hold a drive-in service on Easter Sunday even if the ban is not lifted.
Three weeks ago, about 600 people in 300 cars attended drive-in church services hosted by Genoa Church of Westerville, Ohio.
The church had a raised platform for speakers, with attendees remaining in their parked cars to listen to the music and preaching through an FM transmitter.
Pastor Frank Carl told The Christian Post in an interview that this was the first time that his congregation had held such a service, having been inspired by the famed Crystal Cathedral of California offering a similar worship experience years earlier. “We decided to do this as an alternative way to allow people to worship collectively in a safe environment of their own car and to honor the guidelines of our governor,” explained Carl.
As of early Saturday, there were more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world with 103,257 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the United States, the case count was 501,615 with 18,777 deaths.