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On The Front Lines

New York State Gives Green Light for Churches to Hold Drive-In Worship Services in a Victory for Common Sense in the Midst of COVID-19

NEW YORK, N.Y. — In a victory for common sense and the rights of churches to safely exercise their constitutional rights in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York State has conceded that churches may hold drive-in worship services. The announcement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo came five days after The Rutherford Institute came to the defense of a small church in Massena, NY, that was allegedly threatened with prosecution and $1000 fines for holding drive-in worship services that adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“While federal and state governments have adopted specific restrictive measures in an effort to decelerate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the current public health situation has not resulted in the suspension of fundamental constitutional rights such as religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right of assembly,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “While there is a moral responsibility to not endanger other lives with our actions, that does not mean relinquishing all of our freedoms. Be responsible, but don’t allow yourselves to be muzzled or your individual freedoms to be undermined.”

After Governor Cuomo issued his New York State on PAUSE executive order in March 2020, which imposed a ban on all gatherings and limited activities not considered essential, Pastor Samson Ryman explored options for holding worship services for Central Bible Baptist Church in accordance with safety protocols. Initially, the pastor proposed holding outdoor, open-air services for the 40-member church, which is located in upstate New York, but was told by the Massena Police Department that this was not allowed under the governor’s COVID-19 orders. Pastor Ryman then formulated a plan to hold drive-in services in which attendees would drive to Central Bible Baptist Church, park in the parking lot on the east side of the church, and remain in their vehicles and with their windows up at all times. The pastor planned to conduct the service from a porch attached to the Church and adjacent to the parking lot, using a low-power FM transmitter that attendees could tune into with a radio. At all times during the worship service, Pastor Ryman would remain well over six feet from other church attendees. On May 3, the Church held a drive-in service that was attended by about 23 persons in about 18 vehicles. The following day, police issued an informal cease-and-desist order to Pastor Ryman, warning him that he would be subject to prosecution for holding any further drive-in services and could face a fine of up to $1000. In coming to the defense of Pastor Ryman and Central Bible Baptist Church, The Rutherford Institute informed the police department that its ban on drive-in worship services are grounded in a misunderstanding of the law and a misapplication of the Governor’s Executive Orders, which severely chills the Church’s exercise of the fundamental right to practice their religion. Rutherford Institute attorneys also pointed out that such a ban is an overbroad restriction on First Amendment rights as long as similar activities are allowed. For example, the state’s restrictions allow for gathering in convenience stores, beverage stores, hardware stores, and drive-thru restaurant lines. Five days after the Institute issued its demand letter, Gov. Cuomo announced that churches may hold drive-in services.  He also eased restrictions on religious gatherings, limiting services to 10 attendees and requiring that social distancing protocols be observed.

Case History

May 15, 2020 • Rutherford Institute Warns of First Amendment Lawsuit After Police Threaten Church With $1000 Fines for Holding Drive-In Worship Services


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