Today, I am writing two letters.
The first is to our county Sheriff, thanking him and his deputies for stellar service during our Easter “drive-in” services yesterday. Since we held our last “in-person” worship service on March 15, our church had gone almost completely online—live corporate worship at 5 online channels, small groups meeting via Zoom, and social distancing and other protective measures instituted for any on-campus ministry (food distribution and a coming “lunch to go” for the unemployed) necessary for meeting the needs of our community and region—all under the advice of local health officials.
But on Easter Sunday, we temporarily went back to two live services—one online and one “drive-in.” The Lord gave us perfect weather yesterday, and of the more than 1600 people joining us in various ways for Easter services, 237 of them made the trip to our south parking lot to greet each other from a distance, see our staff greet them with big smiles [from at least 6 feet away of course], be greeted by their lead pastor, who approached each vehicle wearing a protective mask [I got a lot of fashion compliments for that one!] and listen to worship and a message through an FM frequency in their vehicles. Law enforcement were present for the entire service, serving and protecting as the vast majority of law enforcement officers do every day all over our nation. And when the service concluded, the lot was cleared in less than 10 minutes thanks to county officials helping direct traffic.
On returning home, I read a piece from my friend Russell Moore entitled Churches and Governments are Cooperating: Let’s Keep it That Way, and I thought to myself that what Russ was expressing was precisely what our people had just experienced, and I was thankful. People freely worshipped Jesus on Resurrection Sunday in West Virginia. And because no one exited their vehicle and our staff took protective measures and kept their distance, the chance of any viral transmission was roughly the same as if we had been in a clean Operating Room—far less than if we had been at Wal-Mart to be sure!
Liberty and safety can—and did—coexist.
So I’m writing our Sheriff today expressing thanks, not only for the service of his deputies yesterday, but also for his ongoing willingness to cooperate with communities of faith during these uncertain times. I’m guessing most of you reading are in jurisdictions around the country that are like mine. I would encourage everyone in such areas to express deep appreciation to authorities, as well as your intention to continue cooperating as they work to keep people safe.
Since this crisis began, I’ve assured our people that in our area, there is no legitimate threat to religious liberty. Those in authority desire to work with us rather than lord over us. I’ve additionally urged our people to take the measures those authorities have recommended for their own safety. It has never occurred to me in my area that there would be a conflict between religious liberty and our church’s cooperation with authorities during a global pandemic. Quite the contrary, I’m thankful for those in authority, and our church is a willing partner with them.
Unfortunately, there are apparently a few spots in our country where this is not the case. So I’m also writing a second letter today to Pastors Arthur Scott (Temple Baptist Church) and James Hamilton (King James Bible Baptist Church), both of Greenville, Mississippi. Over Passion weekend, these two small churches became the target of Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons, whose recent executive order went beyond that of Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves to ban drive-in services as well as “in-person” worship inside church facilities. In particular, Pastor Scott has stated that most of his members are older, and either do not have internet access or are not equipped for participating in an online worship experience. But regardless of ability, there is virtually a zero chance of viral transmission during a drive-in service in which participants do not leave their vehicles. The Mayor’s response was to send his police department to both churches and issue $500 fines to each attendee.
Put simply, authorities charged with serving and protecting were instead ordered by their Mayor to prosecute, and recklessly endanger a peaceable and completely safe assembly of worshippers.
There have been multiple reports and opinions on these issues already. But at the end of the day, these accounts have a simple narrative and a simple solution.
With the exception of a few village idiots, Christian and other religious leaders all over the country have understood the need for these recent restrictions, and have cooperated fully. Authorities likewise have, for the most part, sought to accommodate as much as possible the faith convictions of the populace. Even in a global pandemic, safety and liberty need not be mutually exclusive enterprises.
But when there is an apparent conflict, the burden for demonstrating the need for restrictions rests on the shoulders of government. Where the dangers of COVID-19 transmission are concerned, authorities have made their case, informed the public as to how we can protect ourselves and our neighbors, and applied restrictions evenly without singling out any particular group. But in the cases now unfolding in Mississippi, Mayor Simmons has demonstrated a level of incompetence and irresponsibility in three areas. First, he has abjectly failed to demonstrate why “drive-in” services—deemed to be acceptable by the standards of the CDC—should be banned along with “in-person” worship services, especially in an environment where drive-in restaurants are neither cited nor even mentioned. In a Constitutional Republic, “because I said so” is never a sufficient reason for any authority to announce and enforce restrictions on liberty. Second, Mayor Simmons has singled out churches in clear disregard for the free exercise clause of the Constitution. And finally, in seeking to “make an example” of these two congregations, Mayor Simmons recklessly endangered members of the public he is charged with protecting by having police force them to lower their windows, and share common pens and ticket books with officers who were not wearing protective gloves. An event that was perfectly safe was endangered by government over-reach.
Those officers should not have been writing tickets. They should have been helping direct traffic.
My second letter will contain an apology to these two pastors that though we live in the same nation, they did not receive the rightly deserved service from authorities that I and my congregation received yesterday. This is completely unacceptable. I will also communicate my full support of their civil disobedience toward these inane measures driven by paranoid fear and authoritarianism rather than by sound scientific knowledge and empowerment. The only clear path forward in my view involves a retraction of the Mayor’s executive order, the “squashing” of those draconian tickets, and a public apology by the Mayor for his abuse of power. Anything less should result in his eventual removal from office.
I encourage you to do the same. If you are in a locality like mine in which the authorities have informed, empowered, and clarified, write to express your deep appreciation and willingness to continue being a partner and advocate. But be sure also to send your support south to fellow pastors who don’t currently enjoy that kind of environment. And I encourage you to do so because Jesus alone is Lord of the conscience. Whether it is a Muslim minority under Hindu persecution in India, Christian persecution at the hands of racial Islam, anti-Semitic marginalization and violence against our Jewish neighbors, or government over-reach against any community of faith anywhere on the planet, Christians are for religious freedom everywhere, for everyone. I’m not concerned for me or my church. I’m thankful I was able to say to our leadership this weekend that “we live in Jefferson County West Virginia, not Greenville, Mississippi.” But let’s stand in solidarity with these pastors who now find themselves on the front line of a battle for religious liberty. Next time, it could be one of us.
Safety and religious liberty are not mutually exclusive.
Joel Rainey is the lead pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, WV.