A Holly Springs, Mississippi church that has challenged coronavirus restrictions imposed by local authorities was burned to the ground Wednesday.
Fox News reports that the building went up in flames between 2:00-4:00 a.m. Investigators said the church was spray-painted with graffiti before an explosion blew out the front of the building. Major Kelly McMillian of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the fire to be a criminal act of arson.
First Pentecostal Church filed a lawsuit last month against the city over its public health order on in-person worship services, the station reported. The lawsuit specifically deals with alleged police disruption of a Bible study and Easter service. Shirley Byers, Holly Springs city attorney, said the church was issued a violation on April 10 after about 40 people had gathered inside and were reportedly not social distancing. The city amended its local order in late April to allow drive-thru church services. The lawsuit says social distancing is practiced inside and that services are held indoors only when weather prohibits outdoor services.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said he is “heartbroken and furious” over what appears to be an intentional destruction of the First Pentecostal Church. Investigators found graffiti in the church parking lot that reads, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits,” NBC affiliate WMC of Memphis reported. Governor Reeves tweeted Thursday that the church was “burned to the ground” and had been trying to open services. Reeves’ tweet ended with, “What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country.”
Thomas More Society senior counsel and lawyer for the church, Stephen Crampton, spoke with Fox News about the fire and said, “We’re in a time where I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s a growing hostility toward churches, across the board. And now, here are churches like First Pentecostal that are sort of stirring up the waters by being outspoken and somewhat firm about seeking to protect their constitutional rights.” Crampton added that he has no doubt that the fire was connected to the church’s lawsuit. “To find that that graffiti is spray painted in there —’I bet you stay home now, you hyprocrites,’ right— seems very clearly directed at this particular lawsuit and the church’s stand for its own constitutional rights,” he said.
Holly Springs is a community of around 7, 600 in the northern part of Mississippi, near the Tennessee border. Governor Reeves has never outright prohibited worship services during the coronavirus pandemic and has classified places like churches as “essential” in state stay-at-home orders. He has, however, encouraged churches to use alternatives such as online and parking lot services.
As of Wednesday, Mississippi had confirmed 12, 222 COVID-19 cases and had a cumulative total of 580 virus-related deaths, according to the state health department. The state has begun reopening parts of its economy and activities. On Tuesday of this week, Governor Reeves signed an order allowing places that include tattoo parlors and dance studios to reopen.