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Religious Freedom in the Parking Lot

Many churches have used their church parking lots as a drive-in worship service.  The concept is pretty simple.  People drive to church, stay in their cars, and listen to the worship service over loudspeakers or on their FM radios.  It is one way of doing church while trying to maintain social distancing.

We talked about having a ‘drive-in’ church at ABC, but when our governor issued a stay-at-home proclamation, we decided not to invite several hundred people to leave their homes—even if they stayed in their cars.  We have led our worship services over video, allowing people to both worship and stay at home.

So though I didn’t think it wise to host a drive-in church, I am frustrated that ‘drive-in’ churches have suddenly become a legal and even a constitutional issue.  Some states and cities have started to issue warnings and even $500 tickets (at a church in Mississippi) for those in the church parking lots.  Other have threatened to force those who drive in to church to quarantine for 14 days.

Here is my own opinion:  It’s currently best to worship over a live-feed or over video. 

But, on the other hand, I believe that the states and cities who are issuing tickets to those at drive-in churches are dead wrong—unless they apply their logic to all parking lots.

The first of our Bill of Rights prohibits the government from (among other things) establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  It is one of our most cherished freedoms.  I do not believe that even in a health crisis, a government can pass a law or a proclamation aimed at limiting churches.

They can—at least for the short term—prohibit all groups of more than ‘X’ number of people.  Those laws aren’t specifically targeting churches, even though they impact churches.  If they apply equally to all groups (sports, schools, governments, clubs, etc.), they don’t violate our Freedom of Religion.  But if a law says, “No churches shall meet,” the law would be unconstitutionally prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

And that’s why I believe that prohibitions against church drive-ins are unconstitutional, at least in the way they are currently structured and enforced.

A government can, in the interests of health, prohibit more than “x” cars in a parking lot, if they apply it fairly to all parking lots.   But the states that are ticketing cars in a church parking lot aren’t doing the same to cars at a grocery store, a lumber yard, a restaurant, or even a golf course.  I believe their actions are therefore unconstitutional, because the law (or proclamation or executive order) is targeted or enforced only at churches.

Please understand where I’m coming from.  I believe that governments have the right to issue short-term proclamations aimed at maintaining the public health.  And I will support them and abide by them.  For that reason, I have decided not to invite people to our church parking lot. 

But I do not believe that governors or governments have the right to pass a proclamation aimed only (or enforced only) in church parking lots.  It’s more than an issue of fairness. It’s a basic tenet of our Freedom of Religion.  

And I am unwilling to surrender that freedom.