Federal Judge Spurns Church’s Quick Request to Defy Covid-19 Order

Police talk to members of the church at a Holly Springs Walmart in a video posted on YouTube in April.

(CN) — Following a video made by a Mississippi church where its congregation crowded into a nearby Walmart, a federal judge refused to expedite a request to halt the city of Holly Springs’ ban on in-service religious gatherings, calling the church’s actions “highly reckless.”

The First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs filed a federal lawsuit against the city last month, claiming that its ban on religious services violated its members’ First Amendment right to religious freedom after police shut down its Easter service and issued a citation to its pastor Jerry Waldrop.

Waldrop then told the entire congregation to go to the local Walmart in protest.

“When we dismiss here, we’re all going to Walmart and go in. I want to prove the point that they’re not enforcing the law,” he said at the time.

A church member took video and later uploaded it to Youtube as parishoners walked through the store. The gathering brought the attention of the mayor and local police, who asked them to leave.

Following an order by U.S. District Judge Michael Mills on April 24, the city quickly amended the ordinance to allow for drive-in services.

Despite the judge’s order, the church pressed on and filed a motion for an injunction to allow parishoners to continue in-person services. On Thursday, Mills denied their expedited request in a fiery opinion that criticized the church for their actions.

“This court has serious concerns that plaintiff has been proceeding in an excessively reckless and cavalier manner and with insufficient respect for the enormity of the health crisis which the COVID-19 pandemic presents,” Mills wrote in the 11-page order.

The judge was especially critical of the church members’ visit to Walmart.

“No pretense was given that the church members were actually shopping during the visit, and they apparently were comfortable in subjecting actual shoppers with potential exposure to a deadly virus merely to make a point in this litigation,” the opinion states.

Judge Mills wrote that the church seemed to be continuing its lawsuit only for the attention it’s brought.

“[The court] frankly suspects that plaintiff’s members regard this controversy as a game of sorts and enjoy the publicity attendant to it,” he wrote. “This court’s suspicions on this point are strengthened by the manner in which plaintiff has sought to move the goalposts in this litigation after the City moved quickly to meet its initial request to hold drive-in services.”

Under Republican Governor Tate Reeves’ stay-at-home order, religious entities are considered essential and services are allowed to be held, given that they adhere to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s health department, which includes no more than 10 people in a gathering.

Mills said that issuing an injunction “would unduly endanger the lives of Holly Springs residents.” He added that he would prefer the governor submit an amicus brief clarifying the order’s stance on religious gatherings.

The church is represented by conservative legal group Thomas More Society. Its spokesman Tom Ciesielka said the church will appeal the order.

Representatives for the city did not immediately respond for comment.

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