So that was a story with three camps: (1) The 99% of religious leaders who cooperated and took worship online (that wasnt big news), (2) the small number of preachers who rebelled (big story in national media) and (3) government leaders who just wanted to do the right thing and keep people alive.
However, things got more complex during the Easter weekend (for Western churches) and thats what Crossroads host Todd Wilken and I discussed during this weeks podcast (click here to tune that in).
As it turned out, there were FIVE CAMPS in this First Amendment drama and the two that made news seemed to be off the radar of most journalists.
But not all. As Julia Duin noted in a post early last week (Enforcement overkill? Louisville newspaper tries to document the war on Easter), the Courier-Journal team managed, with a few small holes, to cover the mess created by different legal guidelines established by Kentuckys governor and the mayor of Louisville.
Thats where drive-in worship stories emerged as the important legal wrinkle that made an already complex subject even harder to get straight.
Those five camps? They are (1) the 99% of religious leaders who cooperated and took worship online, (2) some religious leaders who (think drive-in worship or drive-thru confessions) who tried to create activities that followed social-distancing standards, (3) a few preachers who rebelled, period, (4) lots of government leaders who established logical laws and tried to be consistent with sacred and secular activities and (5) some politicians who seemed to think drive-in religious events were more dangerous than their secular counterparts.
Say what? Look at the Louisville laws, for example. Why were drive-in worship services with, oh, 100 cars containing people in a big space more dangerous than businesses and food pantry efforts that produced, well, several hundred cars in a parking lot?
Why was if OK for people in cars to bunch up at a drive-thru liquor establishment, but they couldnt part near each other at a church service?
Meanwhile, you had people doing essential things at grocery stores and big-box discount stores that jammed parking lots and then had people (masks and gloves optional) getting out of their cars and going inside. Why was a drive-thru confessional with the priest 10-plus feet away from someone in a car more dangerous than that?
The same clash was happening in a few other places. The Associated Press did a solid piece about what was happening in Mississippi: Justice Department takes churchs side in 1st Amendment suit. Heres the start of that:
WASHINGTON (AP) The Justice Department took the rare step of weighing in on the side of a Mississippi Christian church where local officials had tried to stop Holy Week services broadcast to congregants sitting in their cars in the parking lot.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread, leaders at Temple Baptist Church in Greenville began holdingdrive-in servicesfor their congregation on a short-wave radio frequency from inside an empty church save for the preacher.
Arthur Scott, the 82-year-old pastor, said Tuesday that it was a good compromise for his group, a wonderful way to preach the gospel and still its like they are there, but you cant go out and see them, but you know theyre there.
The federal involvement adds to the rising tension over reconciling religious freedom with public health restrictions designed to fightthe pandemic, disputes that are playing out along the same partisan lines that mark the nations overall divide.
Greenville city leaders argue the services violate stay-at-home orders and could have put peoples lives in jeopardy. Church officials believe they have been singled out for their religion, especially after eight police officers were sent last week to ticket the faithful, $500 apiece, for attending services, including the pastors wife.
This detail was really interesting:
Attorney Ryan Tucker of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the church, says theres a Sonic Drive-In restaurant about 200 yards (180 meters) from the church where patrons are still allowed to roll down their windows and talk.
Ah, but some of those drive-in worshipers might roll down their car windows and raise their hands, singing praises to God. Thats way more dangerous than a drive-thru liquor window or fast-food takeout services. Right?
Heres one more look at the legal nature of this conflict:
The Justice Department argued in the filing that the city appeared to be targeting religious conduct by singling churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state recommendations regarding social distancing.
The facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the citys actions target religious conduct, the filing says. If proven, these facts establish a free exercise violation unless the city demonstrates that its actions are neutral and apply generally to nonreligious and religious institutions or satisfies the demanding strict scrutiny standard.
In other words, this is kind of like an equal access laws case. You cant regulate religious activities MORE than you do secular activities with similar methods and circumstances. Government officials cant rule that religion is uniquely dangerous.
Who would have thought wed see First Amendment battles about drive-ins!
Theres much more in the podcast. Please give it a listen and pass it on.
This story isnt over yet, I am sure.
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