MASSENA, N.Y. (WWNY) - A Massena church says it was threatened with a fine over its drive-in service. They say it’s a matter of religious freedom and safe. They’ll keep doing it.
Central Bible Baptist Church is where Pastor Samson Ryman would like to be preaching. But May 3 he was preaching outside and again this past Sunday.
“It's something different. It's neat. It's something to remember by. Go down in history to say, 'Hey we did drive-in service – during this pandemic - this time,'” said Ryman.
But after the May 3 service Ryman said he got a call from police. They said it violated the governor's order on COVID-19 and social distancing. They said he could be fined $1,000.
““We are not trying to be rebellious, but we are trying to give hope, and spiritual guidance,” said Ryman.
Ryman turned to The Rutherford Institute. It defends people who feel their rights are being trampled by government. They say they'll sue if the village doesn't back off.
“Underlying all this is the key, core Constitutional rights of the First Amendment. The right to peaceably assemble. The right to religious worship and freedom of religion,” said John Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute president.
Mayor Timmy Currier and Police Chief Adam Love issued statements Monday. They said the village protects public safety while respecting people's rights.
The mayor's statement read in part: “From our perspective we attempted to do that with the Central Bible Baptist Church. We apparently were not successful, and I regret that.”
Pastor Ryman points out the drive-in service maintains social distance by a wide margin. The Rutherford Institute points out the governor's order didn't close churches.
Of course this isn't just an issue in Massena. Across the nation, there have been churches challenging government's right to impinge on worship – even during a pandemic.
The Rutherford Institute says it will not needlessly sue if the village backs off. The village doesn’t say what its next step might be.
Following are statements from Police Chief Love and Mayor Currier:
Adam Love, Chief of Police
"The Massena Police Department takes people’s Civil Rights and the Constitution of the United States seriously. We believe freedoms are paramount for every citizen. With the current Executive Order put in place by Governor Cuomo, we have had to assist with interpretation and compliance questions from partners, businesses and citizens.
“To date the Massena Police Department has not charged or made any threat of arrest with any Executive Order violation issued by Governor Cuomo, nor are we able to impose fines. We have only educated, supported and showed understanding when our partners, businesses and citizens express their concerns during this difficult time. The Massena Police Department strives to keep our community safe and protected, especially, during this public health crisis, and we will continue to do so.”
Timmy Currier, Mayor
"From day one of this crisis, the team in our Emergency Operation Center have worked with citizens, nearly all the essential businesses, several businesses that are closed and many groups in Massena to think through the executive orders and come to an understanding of how they are applicable. Public health and public safety have always been a vital part of this approach, while always respecting people’s rights.
"From our perspective, we attempted to do that with the Central Bible Baptist Church. We apparently were not successful, and I regret that.
“I also regret that when the Pastor stopped outside my house last week and said, ‘we are praying for you,’ he didn’t take the opportunity to raise this issue with me and perhaps we could have come to a resolution. I have always believed that potential issues can be resolved with communication beforehand.”