The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has granted an injunction pending appeal to the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, Mississippi. The church, which was destroyed this week in an arson fire, had sued the city of Holly Springs for civil rights violations as a result of prejudicial enforcement of COVID-19 Stay at Home Orders. The Thomas More Society has been working to secure the religious rights of the First Pentecostal Church and other houses of worship across the nation as a result of state and local decrees that have trampled the constitutional rights of people of faith while making exceptions for secular operations.
Attorney Stephen Crampton, Special Counsel for the Thomas More Society, stated, “This is a huge win for religious liberty, and it arrived on the same day that President Trump issued a call for reopening churches. While the whole of society has been forced to adopt social distancing behaviors, no city or state has the authority to hold religious organizations to a higher degree of isolation than other entities. First Pentecostal Church should not be more restricted than the retail outlets of Holly Springs, and we are thankful that the Fifth Circuit has enjoined enforcement of the Holly Springs Order.”
The church gained national attention when parishioners’ online videos went viral. The posted videos showed several of the congregation entering a Walmart after the police had interrupted their Easter church service to show how they were allowed to conduct in the store the same types of activities they were forbidden from doing at their church. Pastor Jerry Waldrop was issued a criminal citation for violating the Holly Springs Stay at Home Order for that Easter service gathering inside, even though they were practicing social distancing. On April 23, 2020, the church sought a temporary restraining order against the City, after officers disrupted and shut down a midweek Bible study, ten days after disrupting the congregation’s Easter worship service.
The following day, after a hearing on a temporary restraining order, the city amended the ban on church gatherings to allow “drive-in” church services, but then only in the parking lot with the congregants’ windows rolled almost all the way up.
When the church then sought to meet indoors and the City again refused to allow it, the church moved for a preliminary injunction and a prompt hearing. When the district court issued a 10-page opinion stating that it would not hear the matter immediately, the church appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. After the church burned to the ground overnight on May 19, investigators declared that it was arson, and revealed that graffiti at the scene included a message that said, in part, “Bet you stay home now, you Hypokrits (sic).” The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is investigating the incident.
To add insult to injury, the City argued in the Fifth Circuit that the case should be moot because the church no longer had a building to gather in anyway. The Fifth Circuit rejected that argument. In a concurrence by Judge Don Willett, he wrote: “One might expect a city to express sympathy or outrage (or both) when a neighborhood house of worship is set ablaze. One would be mistaken. Rather than condemn the crime’s depravity, the City seized advantage, insisting that the Church’s First Amendment claim necessarily went up in smoke when the church did: ‘the Church was destroyed from an arson fire…making the permanent injunction claim moot’.”
The Fifth Circuit order, issued May 22 by Fifth Circuit Judges Patrick E. Higginbotham, Leslie H. Southwick, and Don R. Willett, noted that “in this fast-shifting landscape of COVID-19 regulations, temporary deferral of a decision may effectively be a permanent denial.” It then enjoined enforcement of the City’s Stay at Home Order against the church pending further proceedings in the district court.
Read the May 22, 2020 Order issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the Thomas More Society represented case, First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi, here.