The most frequent question we have fielded from churches has been whether the parking lot service if conducted consistent with CDC and state guidelines is imperiled if a set of bathrooms is open and available. That question remains to be answered by any court. But, indirectly it may have been considered.
Please note that in this post we are departing from our normal practice of reporting court opinions that are more or less dispositive of the issues before the court.
In Temple Baptist Church v City of Greenville (ND Miss., No. CIV-2020-64), the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a Statement of Interest in support of the church Plaintiff. Temple Baptist was alleged by the Plaintiff, and reiterated by the DOJ, to be a small church that did not have a website, did not have the ability to stream services, and had a membership that did not have universal access to streamed material. Temple held a parking lot worship service on Easter Sunday and used a lower powered FM transmitter to reach cars parked in the church parking lot. The church required social distancing car spacing and rolled up windows allowing no one to exit their vehicles. Mississippi declared churches to be essential businesses. The City of Greenville, however, enacted their own shelter in place order banning church parking lot services and allegedly declaring churches to be non-essential. The DOJ pointed out the enactment was directed at churches and ignored the contradiction in the city shelter in place order that allowed drive through restaurant patrons to sit in their cars in line with the windows rolled down. City police showed up at the church parking lot Easter service, knocked on windows, demanded driver’s licenses, and ticketed the attendees at $500 apiece.
There is no certainty the church will prevail even with the support of the DOJ and the protection of the First Amendment. In times of plague, epidemic and pandemic, government has extraordinary powers to temporarily curtail freedom of movement and association. However, most of the opinions on the subject date from the eras of yellow fever, smallpox and polio. The more recent opinions arose during the Ebola virus epidemic even though in the United States there were very few. However, allowing people to get out of their car to make grocery and liquor purchases, or to roll their window down to receive them, certainly seems to indicate stricter controls on church parking lot services are constitutionally impermissible.