NY church threatened with $1000 fine for holding drive-thru services

Central Bible Baptist Church/Facebook

The Central Bible Baptist Church in New York was threatened with a fine if they continued their drive-in worship services. Pastor Samson Ryman conducted a drive-in worship service on May 3, with a total of 23 worshippers attending in 18 vehicles, but was shortly contacted by police on May 4.

The Massena Police Department warned pastor Ryman that his church violated the law and that they would be imposed with a fine of up to $1000. Although pastor Ryman was warned against holding an open-air service, he was not expressly prohibited from conducting the drive-in services.

On behalf of the church to the Police Chief Adam J. Love, The Rutherford Institute wrote in response to the threat: 

"While we appreciate your diligence in working to combat the spread of this virus, you are mistaken in your assertion that church "drive-in" worship services are prohibited under New York's current emergency orders and could result in fines. Although federal and state governmentshave 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.

"The Church, its leaders and its members are being unfairly subjected to threats that are grounded in a misunderstanding of the law and a misapplication of the Governor's Executive Orders, which severely chills their exercise of the fundamental right to practice their religion.

"In the hopes of avoiding formal legal action, I would strongly advise you to withdraw your threat to enforce the Executive Orders' restrictions on gatherings to Central Bible Baptist Church's drive-in services and allow them to proceed as planned.

"Despite your assertion to the contrary, the drive-in worship services the Central Bible Baptist Church seeks to conduct are not forbidden by Governor Cuomo's COVID-19 Executive Orders restricting gatherings. However, even if the Governor's Executive Orders could be construed to apply to church gatherings, application of the gatherings restriction to the Church's proposed drive-in worship services would violate the First Amendment's guarantee to free exercise of religion. Indeed, a federal court recently struck down an attempt in Kentucky to apply a COVID- 19 gathering restriction to a drive-in church service."

The letter also states that pastor Ryman formulated a plan to hold drive-in services at Central Bible Baptist Church after Massena Police warned him that he could not conduct open-air worship services under the current COVID-19 related restrictions.

"According to the plan for the drive-in worship services, attendees would drive to Central Bible Baptist Church and park in the parking lot on the east side of the church, remaining in their vehicles and with their windows up at all times. Pastor Ryman would then 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."