Mississippi town says it won’t enforce $500 tickets issued to drive-in churchgoers

Published 2:59 pm Monday, April 13, 2020

The mayor of a Mississippi Delta town said churchgoers who were issued $500 tickets last week for attending drive-in church services can tear them up as the city has no plans to collect.

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons announced plans to rescind the tickets Monday morning at a press conference, the Delta Democrat-Times newspaper reported. Simmons has come under fire from local, state and national critics as an example of government overreach in the global coronavirus pandemic.

“This smear campaign full of lies about my beliefs are unfounded,” the mayor said, the newspaper reported. “To publicly state this mayor is targeting a church is unacceptable and reprehensible.”

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Simmons appeared to be referencing comments made by Charles Hamilton, pastor of one of two Greenville churches where congregants were ticketed in their cars.

The mayor said the officer who issued the tickets was doing so after receiving multiple complaint calls about the gathering and was thus not targeting the church.

“This whole incident has been taken out of context,” Simmons said. “It’s a misrepresentation of the officers, this council and this mayor.”

Members of Temple Baptist Church and King James Baptist Bible Church said they were worshipping inside their vehicles during drive-in church services last week listening over their car radios, when Greenville police arrived and started tapping on car windows, offering the occupants a chance to leave or get a $500 ticket.

Police said the church goers were violating the city’s recent emergency ordinance prohibiting public gatherings, including church services. The ordinance was part of the city’s reaction to try to curb spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The mayor told the media that the city’s order barring gatherings of 10 or more people remained in place as a way slow the spread of coronavirus. He called on Gov. Tate Reeves to issue clear statewide guidance on whether people are allowed to congregate for worship during the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order that remains in effect until April 20.

The virus has spread rapidly in Washington County, where Greenville is located. The new Health Department figures show the county has at least 57 confirmed cases in a population of about 44,000.

The governor’s stay-at-home order tells people not to gather in groups of 10 or more. Reeves has said repeatedly that he would prefer that churches not hold services in their sanctuaries or parking lots. But he has also said that government does not have the right to shut down worship services, and on Saturday he criticized “liberal politicians around this country that are trying to utilize this catastrophe and this crisis to shut down churches.”

Texas-based First Liberty Institute emailed a letter to Greenville officials Thursday demanding that the city drop the “draconian and unconstitutional” restriction on worship services. The group said the pastor of one Greenville church has been standing in the parking lot and using a bullhorn to deliver his sermon while people sit in a few cars with their windows rolled up to listen. The letter said Greenville police issued $500 tickets on Wednesday to people parked outside another church for a similar service.

Jeremy Dys, an attorney for First Liberty, said in a statement Monday: “The mayor continues to single out and target the churches of Greenville.”

Simmons said he and other Greenville leaders have been the subject of a “smear campaign” by people who try to portray them as anti-religious. He said city leaders are not trying to deny people the ability to practice their faith.

“My record is clear on the support of faith-based communities and serving in our personal walk with Jesus,” Simmons said during a news conference outside Greenville City Hall.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.