In coronavirus crisis, drive-in restaurants OK but drive-in worship services cause all hell to break loose

Coronavirus threatens more than our health, our economy, and our social habits...

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The cities of Greenville, Mississippi, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, didn’t seem to mind if people patronized a drive-in restaurant, but they did mind if people showed up at a drive-in worship service. The Sonic drive-in restaurants in both cities are doing very well during the crisis, with numerous drivers regularly pulled up to order burgers and shakes. To that, the cities have offered no objections.

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But when Temple Baptist Church down the street from the Sonic in Greenville hosted a Wednesday night drive-in worship service—in which fewer than 20 cars with parishioners parked in the church parking lot to listen to their pastor through their FM radios—the city took extreme actions to stop them. Even though nobody at Temple got out of their car, eight police officers showed up to issue citations at $500 per person.

After Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit, the mayor agreed to drop the citations but has yet to rescind the city’s unconstitutional order.

In Chattanooga, Metro Tab Church even got advice from police before planning a drive-in church service for Easter. The police said the church wouldn’t be violating any shelter-in-place orders. That was until the mayor suddenly announced on April 9 that “drive-in services…even in their cars with the windows rolled up, for any length of time, will be considered a violation of our shelter-in-place directive.”

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After ADF filed a suit there, the city posted a statement on its website Saturday that “there will be no prohibition of any drive-in church services at this time” so long as they comply with the normal social distancing provisions of the city’s order. The mayor has yet to say anything himself. Instead of following the lead of the governors in both states, these mayors issued their own orders that made no sense. Residents could sit in their cars while enjoying their burgers but face hefty fines for daring to park in their church’s lot with zero personal contact with other people. These bans clearly singled out churches for punishment.

In Chattanooga, Metro Tab Church even got advice from police before planning a drive-in church service for Easter. The police said the church wouldn’t be violating any shelter-in-place orders. That was until the mayor suddenly announced on April 9 that “drive-in services…even in their cars with the windows rolled up, for any length of time, will be considered a violation of our shelter-in-place directive.”

More reasonably, the mayors of both cities could have commended churches for their proactive steps to keep their congregations safe while meeting their spiritual needs—especially those who attend these churches and don’t have access to social media. Instead, the cities chose to punish the churches’ conscientious efforts while violating both the governors’ orders and the Constitution. That’s why ADF sued both cities and their mayors for violations of the First Amendment. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the Greenville case Tuesday that reaffirmed Attorney General William Barr’s guidance on the matter. The statement rightly clarifies that the government cannot “target persons or individuals because of their religion.” Further, it concludes, “The facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the city’s actions target religious conduct.”

CLICK HERE TO GET FOX BUSINESS ON THE GO To be fair, these are turbulent times and mistakes will happen. Elsewhere, ADF has alerted government officials to constitutional issues with their orders, and they cooperatively resolved the issues. But this last week was different, and not just in Mississippi and Tennessee. In both Charlotte and Greensboro, North Carolina, city officials cracked down on pro-life advocates, arresting them on public property outside abortion facilities despite their careful adherence to local social distancing guidelines. (In those cities, you can still go outside to jog or play golf or get an abortion, but not stand outside to pray for women considering abortion.) And in Kansas, you can gather in an office or retail store but not in a church building. ADF has looked at hundreds of these gathering restrictions the last few weeks. And government actions are being gauged primarily by two questions: Are the directives unfairly targeting certain groups or speech? Are the directives achieving their public health purposes by the least restrictive means possible?

ABBOTT LABS TO SHIP 4M CORONAVIRUS ANTIBODY TESTS THIS MONTH In North Carolina and Kansas, as in Greenville and Chattanooga, government officials failed those expectations, overstepped their authority, and violated the First Amendment. That led us to file lawsuits against Charlotte, Greensboro, and the governor of Kansas, too, who is now subject to a temporary restraining order that a federal district court granted on Saturday. The vast majority of churches have cooperated with government officials doing what seems best for the safety of their congregants and communities. And most officials have seemed willing to recognize that there are limits to their authority and that religious exercise plays an essential role in the lives of many Americans including—perhaps especially—in difficult times. But what’s happened in these particular cities and states is a reminder that the coronavirus threatens more than our health, our economy, and our social habits. Protecting public health is critical but so is following the Constitution.

Our most cherished freedoms should not serve as yet another casualty of this pandemic.Kristen Waggoner is senior vice president of U.S. legal division for Alliance Defending Freedom. Follow Kristen on Twitter @KWaggonerADF or follow ADF @AllianceDefends.

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