On April 22, three police officers from the Holly Springs PD disrupted a mid-week, outdoor Bible Study service at the First Pentecostal Church in Mississippi and shut the small gathering down on the grounds that the church was criminally violating Holly Springs’ “stay at home” order. The thirty-five churchgoers who had congregated at the time were practicing social distancing and otherwise complying with all applicable health requirements.
This was the second instance where the Holly Springs PD disbursed congregants of the First Pentecostal Church during their “drive-in services”. The first occurred on Easter Sunday—just ten days prior—wherein police officers interrupted the holiday worship service and issued Pastor Jerry Waldrop a citation for violating the “stay at home” order that Mississippi governor Tate Reeves (R) had put into effect on March 23.
According to a lawsuit filed last week by the Thomas More Society on behalf of Pastor Waldrop and his church, the Holly Springs PD has been disregarding the constitutional rights of the congregation.
The complaint of the civil rights violation, which was filed by the Thomas More Society stated among the claims listed: “Plaintiff is a church that peacefully exercises its First Amendment rights within Holly Springs. Defendant City of Holly Springs is a municipality organized under the laws of the State of Mississippi and subject to suit under 42 USC §1983 and the common law. Plaintiffs wish to continue to engage in their peaceful activities without undue interference from Defendant and its intrusive Stay Home Order.”
The lawsuit was clear and to the point. Americans have the constitutional right to peacefully assemble for religious purposes and the Holly Springs Police Department sought to disband all congregants. The First Pentecostal Church in MS wasn’t the first to be shut down, and even harassed, by local law enforcement and the governors and mayors issuing those orders.
But Pastor Waldrop and his church have been one of the first to fight back and demand the legal upholding of their constitutional rights. Waldrop contacted the Thomas More Society, a non-profit, national public interest law firm dedicated to fighting for religious liberty, among other conservative causes. Based in Chicago, the Thomas More Society litigates cases and class action lawsuits to protect First Amendment rights and the free expression of religion in public. And it’s a good thing that Pastor Waldrop had the wherewithal to stand his ground, exercise his rights, and hire legal representation.
Right now, the governmental response to the coronavirus pandemic has included a massive breach in American constitutional rights, yet churchgoers and the general public at large have obliged sudden executive orders and mandates despite their inherent infringement on rights, because many Americans are committed to acting in the interest of public health. They don’t want to risk spreading the virus. They don’t want to put their neighbors, friends, and fellow parishioners in danger. They believe in the government’s risk assessment and volitionally obey guidelines. Those who have made that choice have every right to.
But when the government takes away that “choice” and forces citizens, congregants, and pastors to abide by mandates that directly violate constitutional rights, then something very sinister is at work, and we should all be concerned.
This is an important distinction and it must be made. If a church leader chooses to abide by guidelines in the interest of public health and safety, even if those guidelines presume a suspension of constitutional rights, then that is the sole choice of that pastor or church leader. But the choice absolutely must be left to the church.
Pastor Jerry Waldrop understood this. He engaged the Thomas More Society to uphold his constitutional rights, and this past Friday a federal judge in Mississippi ruled in the favor of the First Pentecostal Church, allowing services to stay open, albeit in accordance with social distancing rules.
U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills, the judge who ruled in Waldrop's favor, said that the court “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.”
Attorney General William Barr has been in agreement and support of Pastor Waldrop and other church leaders who are facing the same unconstitutional citations. “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,” Barr said this past Tuesday in regard to filing with the United States Department of Justice. “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.”
If the gross double standard is obvious to AG Barr who functions on the federal level, then why is it not obvious to officials who are working at the state and local levels? Or is it? Do local authorities simply view religious services as expendable?
Fighting the good fight is the Thomas More Society, which is why the Christian Daily Chronicle is shining a faith spotlight on their organization today in tandem with Pastor Waldrop, who took the first important step.
The First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, MS is not just another church. On its website, First Pentecostal welcomes all visitors and offers to them the hope that comes with a life changed by Jesus Christ. When parishioners experience the power and presence of God through congregation, their lives are transformed. Like many pastors and church leaders, Pastor Jerry Waldrop has been committed to continuing to hold modified worship services throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and now he can continue to do so thanks to the Thomas More Society, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills, and Attorney General William Barr.