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KY Federal Judge: Louisville Mayor Cannot Shut Down Drive-in Church Services

Saturday, April 11, 2020, 5:40 pm News Flash Archive

As Greenville citizens fight a city hall order banning them from holding drive-in church services, a Kentucky Federal Judge just issued an order slapping down the same attempt by Louisville Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer.

The Judge's order provides a soaring, beautiful, and inspiring endorsement of First Amendment rights, and why it is so important to uphold the right of the faithful to assemble and worship together, even in times of panic or epidemic.

Amazingly, the court's order also poignantly describes why Easter is so important to Christians, and how it celebrates the death and resurrection of God's Son, the Lord Jesus.

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons, along with the city council, passed an order April 7 banning all church services, including drive-in services. This order contradicted and overrode Governor Tate Reeve's Executive Order which specifically protected religious gatherings as "essential operations" which are exempt from prohibition.

The Greenville order may be seen here:
Greenville Order Barring Church Services

Wednesday evening, Greenville police officers busted up one such drive-in service at Temple Baptist Church and issued $500 tickets to everyone attending in their cars. Thursday evening, police threatened parishioners of the King James Bible Baptist Church with similar treatment, but the church-goers defied the police and the service concluded without further incident.

The Mayor of Louisville KY issued a similar ban, but First Liberty Institute, which specializes in protecting First Amendment freedom, filed an emergency lawsuit with the Federal District Court on Friday to bar enforcement of the order.

This afternoon, Federal District Court Judge Justin R. Walker entered an order barring enforcement of the Louisville KY Mayor's order, in a breathtaking memorandum that describes the primary importance of religious liberty in American history up through the present day.

Judge Walker's order may be read here:
Judge Justin Walker Memorandum and Order Enforcing Religious Liberty

Judge Walker's opinion and order contained many astounding quotes, some of which are reproduced below:

On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.

That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville's Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship - and even though it's Easter.

The Mayor's decision is stunning.

And it is, "beyond all reason," unconstitutional.

The Pilgrims were heirs to a long line of persecuted Christians, including some punished with prison or worse for the crime of celebrating Easter - and an even longer line of persecuted peoples of more ancient faiths. And although their notions of tolerance left more than a little to be desired, the Pilgrims understood at least this much: No place, not even the unknown, is worse than any place whose state forbids the exercise of your sincerely held religious beliefs.

Louisville has targeted religious worship by prohibiting drive-in church services, while not prohibiting a multitude of other non-religious drive-ins and drive-throughs - including, for example, drive-through liquor stores. Moreover, Louisville has not prohibited parking in parking lots more broadly - including, again, the parking lots of liquor stores. When Louisville prohibits religious activity while permitting non-religious activities, its choice "must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny." That scrutiny requires Louisville to prove its interest is "compelling" and its regulation is "narrowly tailored to advance that interest."

Louisville will be (highly) unlikely to make the second of those two showings.

... its actions violate the Free Exercise Clause "beyond all question" because they are not even close to being "narrowly tailored to advance that interest."

...if beer is "essential," so is Easter.

Louisville might suggest that On Fire members could participate in an online service and thus satisfy their longing for communal celebration. But some members may not have access to online resources. And even if they all did, the Free Exercise Clause protects their right to worship as their conscience commands them. It is not the role of a court to tell religious believers what is and isn't important to their religion, so long as their belief in the religious importance is sincere. The Free Exercise clause protects sincerely held religious beliefs that are at times not "acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others."

It is true that On Fire's church members could believe in everything Easter teaches them from their homes on Sunday. So too could the Pilgrims before they left Europe. But the Pilgrims demanded more than that. And so too does the Free Exercise Clause. It "guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to inward belief." That promise is as important for the minister as for those ministered to, as vital to the shepherd as to the sheep. And it is as necessary now as when the Mayflower met Plymouth Rock.

if sitting in cars did pose a significant danger of spreading the virus, Louisville would close all drive-throughs and parking lots that are not related to maintaining public health, which they haven't done.

Moreover, whereas the public may have no interest in Louisville's overbroad ban on drivein church services, the public has a profound interest in men and women of faith worshiping together this Easter in a manner consistent with their conscience. You do not have to share On Fire's faith to believe that celebrating that faith - while gathered together in praise of the One they believe healed the sick and conquered death - will bring hope to many in need of hope this Holy Week.

The Christians of On Fire, however, owe no one an explanation for why they will gather together this Easter Sunday to celebrate what they believe to be a miracle and a mystery. True, they can attempt to explain it. True, they can try to teach. But to the nonbeliever, the Passion of Jesus - the betrayals, the torture, the state-sponsored murder of God's only Son, and the empty tomb on the third day - makes no sense at all. And even to the believer, or at least to some of them, it can be incomprehensible as well.

But for the men and women of On Fire, Christ's sacrifice isn't about the logic of this world. Nor is their Easter Sunday celebration. The reason they will be there for each other and their Lord is the reason they believe He was and is there for us. For them, for all believers, "it isn't a matter of reason; finally, it's a matter of love."

The Alliance Defending Freedom has filed suit on behalf of one Greenville MS Baptist Church requesting similar relief for worshipers for tomorrow morning's Easter services.

John Pittman Hey
The Taxpayers Channel

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