A local church is suing Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and the city for what the church alleges is an attack on its constitutional rights.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday with the Tennessee Eastern District Court, Metropolitan Tabernacle Church says the mayor's stay-at-home orders, specifically a ban on drive-in church services during the COVID-19 pandemic, are violating its constitutional right to assemble and worship.
Metro Tab, led by Pastor William Steven Ball, held its last in-person worship service on March 15 and was planning to begin drive-in services on Easter, when visitors could listen to the service in their vehicles through a short-range FM transmitter. A local pastor met with Berke on April 7 and the mayor said then drive-in services would be allowed, according to the lawsuit.
However, on April 9, Berke ordered churches to not hold drive-in services. The lawsuit alleges these types of services are safe and the mayor's order goes too far. Religious functions are considered essential under Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's executive orders.
"Crises do not suspend the Constitution, and there is no legitimate justification for banning individuals from remaining in their vehicles in a church parking lot to listen to a short-range FM broadcast of a church service," the lawsuit reads.
Metro Tab alleges the mayor's actions have not been justified and violate its First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion, to assemble and to free speech. The church says the mayor's order to ban drive-in services specifically targets houses of worship, while retail centers and other businesses are allowed to have full parking lots, according to the lawsuit.
"According to the city, you can buy a hamburger and sit in your car at a drive-in restaurant, or sit in the parking lot of a retail establishment with hundreds of other vehicles with your windows rolled down, but you can't sit in your car at a drive-in church service with your windows rolled up," the lawsuit reads.
The church's argument cites an April 15 statement from Attorney General William Barr, who said governments cannot put special restrictions on religious activities if those restrictions are not also applied to nonreligious activities.
Berke's office offered no comment on the pending lawsuit, but emphasized the mayor has been in conversation with local faith leaders since the coronavirus pandemic began.
"The vast majority of them realize the severity of this crisis and the importance of what we are asking from the public right now," said Richel Albright, communications director at the office. "People, of course, need to be able to worship, but they must worship safely, and in a way that protects their health and the health of others."
Fights over whether stay-at-home orders intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus can close churches have popped up across the country, including in Kansas, California and Louisiana. Drive-in services in the Methodist denomination were shut down this month over safety concerns about the spread of the virus.
The lawsuit was submitted by the Memphis-based Center for Religious Expression and the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona nonprofit considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be an anti-LGBTQ hate group - an allegation the group's president called a troubling smear.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.