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The First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs in Mississippi was granted an injunction Friday to hold in-person services pending appeal, just three days after an arsonist burned the building to the ground.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills ruled that the church could hold drive-thru services after its pastor Jerry Waldrop was cited by police for having an Easter Sunday Mass in defiance of the local stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Thomas More Society Senior Counsel Stephen Crampton, who has represented the church in court, continued to push for the congregation's right to gather in person despite the coronavirus pandemic.
While Crampton and Waldrop were awaiting the Fifth Circuit's ruling, the church was set on fire by vandals early Wednesday morning, who also spraypainted a message that read: "I Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic]."
Maj. Kelly McMillian of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the fire to be a criminal act of arson, and said the investigation is still ongoing. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is also investigating the incident.
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted the injunction, Crampton spoke with Fox News about the ruling and said there's no better way to celebrate Memorial Day than by honoring America's First Amendment rights.
“We are thankful for the Fifth Circuit’s prompt ruling and for the restoration of the right to worship in person. We hope that as the nation celebrates Memorial Day and remembers our veterans, we also celebrate and remember our precious Constitutional rights, for which many brave men and women fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice," he said in a statement.
"As for the next steps, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court," Crampton continued. "While our motion for a preliminary injunction is still pending in that court, the City has until May 28 to file a response, and then we have until June 4 to file our reply. As a practical matter, though, the City's latest Stay Home Order will expire on June 3 unless they extend it again, which I believe is unlikely, so the need for injunctive relief may become moot at that point."
After the Fifth Circuit sided with First Pentecostal, Judge Don Willett issued a concurrence slamming the city for trying to argue that the act of arson rendered the case null and void.
“One might expect a city to express sympathy or outrage (or both) when a neighborhood house of worship is set ablaze," Willett wrote. "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... This argument is shameful."
He added: "When the parishioners of First Pentecostal Church leave their homes on Sundays, they are not going to church; they are the church. The church is not the building."
"The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now -- for this weekend," Trump said. "If they don't do it, I will override the governors."
Crampton issued a statement that same day, celebrating the commander-in-chief's comments and emphasizing the importance of religion in everyday life.
“We appreciate and fully endorse the President’s call to reopen the churches," he said. "Churches are essential organizations; they provide essential services that are desperately needed during these desperate times. As President Trump said, ‘We need more prayer in America, not less.’"
Crampton added, "The discriminatory labeling of churches as nonessential by many governors across the nation has infringed our rights and injured our recovery from this terrible pandemic. It is high time to reopen the churches.”