A Mississippi church was “burned to the ground” this week after it recently filed a lawsuit against the city to hold worship services that would have defied coronavirus stay-at-home orders.
The fire that destroyed First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs on Wednesday is being investigated as arson after police found a spray-painted message in the parking lot that read, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits,” according to reports.
So far, no suspects have been identified.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday he was “heartbroken and furious” about the incident.
“This is not who we are,” Reeves said at a news conference. “Obviously, we have to ensure that this investigation is done and that it is completed,” Reeves said. “But if this is in fact what it looks like, I want you to know that we’re going to do everything in our power to find whomever burned this church down.”
Attorneys for the church said they are convinced the blaze was intentionally set as retribution for the legal action.
“To find that that graffiti is spray painted in there — ‘I bet you stay home now, you hypocrites,’ right — seems very clearly directed at this particular lawsuit and the church’s stand for its own constitutional rights,” said Stephen Crampton, according to NBC News.
Police found a can of white spray paint and a flashlight at the scene, according to The New York Times.
Federal investigators were expected to be back at the scene Friday.
The legal matter was sparked when the city issued lockdown orders March 23.
The church’s pastor, Jerry Waldrop, confronted city officials about the restrictions at a protest at a local Walmart, the Times reported.
Things heated up more after Holly Springs police walked in on a Bible study and two days later an Easter Sunday service, issuing citations for social distancing violations.
The church next filed the lawsuit last month claiming the city of Holly Springs’ public health order violated the church’s right to free speech and interfered with its members’ ability to worship.
In late April, the city amended its order to allow drive-thru church services.
All this occurred as the governor encouraged church services online and in parking lots, but never issued legal restrictions on gatherings. Places including churches had been designated “essential,” according to NBC News.
The state is now in the midst of reopening after Reeves signed an order Tuesday allowing businesses such as tattoo parlors and dance studios to open again.
The order also spelled out new health safety guidelines for worship services, for cleaning and disinfecting, and social-distanced seating, NBC reported. The guidelines also recommend holding separate services for vulnerable age groups.
Some churches in Minnesota this week said they would resume services in defiance of the governor’s orders. That followed a federal judge’s ruling in North Carolina that allowed for indoor religious gatherings after the governor said they were largely banned. And five lawyers with the Justice Department said in a letter to California on Tuesday that the state’s restrictions to combat the virus discriminated against religious institutions.
— Information provided by The New York Times was used to supplement this report.
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