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Mississippi mayor: No penalty for drive-up church amid virus

(AP) — A Mississippi mayor said Monday that people will not have to pay $500 tickets that police issued to them for attending drive-up church services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons said, however, that the city’s ban on such gatherings remains in place to try to save lives as the highly contagious virus continues to spread. And 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.
Figures released by the state Health Department on Monday showed Mississippi had at least 2,942 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 98 deaths from it as of Sunday evening. That was an increase of 161 cases and two deaths from the previous day. The state’s population is about 3 million.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
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.
During a phone interview with The Associated Press after the news conference, Simmons said Greenville’s order limiting in-person and drive-up worship will remain in effect as long as the governor’s stay-at-home order is in place. Only the City Council could repeal the local order, and its next scheduled meeting is April 21. Simmons said police will enforce the limits, first by asking people not to congregate in groups and then by issuing tickets if they refuse to leave.
Simmons said his life has been threatened over the order. He told the AP that he has reported the threats to the FBI that people have made online and during phone calls to City Hall and to the law office he shares with his brother, who is a state senator.
People commenting on the Greenville’s Facebook page have referred to city leaders as tyrants and communists.