Cities restrict religious activity amid shutdown

State and local governments have exercised unprecedented control over constitutionally protected activities

Pastor John Hedgepeth of Northwood Temple Pentecostal speaks to churchgoers during an Easter 'drive-in' service. Photo by Robert Clark, North State Journal

RALEIGH — Christians across North Carolina and around the world celebrated this Easter season with unfamiliar restrictions on their activity, traditions and services. The restrictions were often seen as necessary sacrifices, but some of the faithful felt they were being singled out for special scrutiny by local officials who were hostile to their beliefs.

David Benham, president of pro-life organization Cities4Life, was arrested in Charlotte on April 4 after refusing to leave the street in front of a local abortion provider. Benham is a former professional baseball player and one of the twin “Benham Brothers” who had their HGTV house-flipping show canceled over their conservative views on marriage.

Benham told NSJ that, in his opinion, his group was specifically targeted because they were pro-life Christians. City officials said there were 50 people present and social distancing rules were flouted.Benham said there were only three “sidewalk counselors” from his organization there and they had separated themselves carefully with sidewalk chalk to make sure they had proper distance.

Benham and others showed up to the Charlotte clinic after receiving calls that the police were there demanding that the group’s members leave the area. When they refused to leave, eight were given citations of “violation of emergency prohibitions and restrictions” — a Class 2 misdemeanor.

“They’re saying there were 50 people there,” Benham said on the discrepancy between his account and the “official” account. “Just look at the video. The video shows clear evidence. It is a lie. It is wrong. The police department, Charlotte Observer, the mayor’s office — they’re all wrong.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a friend of Benham’s, tweeted out in support of him later the same day, calling the arrest unconstitutional and saying, “Because elected Dems are pro-abortion, they are abusing their power—in a one-sided way—to silence pregnancy counselors.” Cruz also put a petition on his site which asks signatories to “Tell Democratic Governor Roy Cooper that if abortion is ‘essential’ then pregnancy services are essential, too. Stop discriminating against people of faith!”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has received a flood of complaints from religious people around the country who, like Benham, believe their rights are being violated by local and state governments.

A tweet from Barr’s communications director, Kerri Kupec, said, “During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”

On Tuesday, Barr announced that his office had filed a statement in support of a church in Mississippi after the city fined congregants $500 per person for attending parking lot services. Barr’s statement also noted that citizens were permitted to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open.

“But even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” said Barr in a statement. “Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”

“Where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest,” said Barr. “Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”

Drive-in church services have been another touchpoint in North Carolina, especially during the Easter season. Wake County government made clear that drive-in services would not be permitted. Some churches, like Plymouth Baptist Church in Raleigh, had planned to have a drive-in service but were forced to cancel, as reported by Carolina Journal.

Gov. Roy Cooper made clear in his executive order 121 that religious entities were subject to the 10-person limitation.

The Wilmington Police Department put out a similar directive to local churches on April 7 on Facebook, saying they “prohibit any event or convening that brings together more than ten individuals in one place (indoor or outdoor) at one time. This prohibition includes ‘drive-in’ services.”

The very next day, Wilmington police posted that drive-in services “will not be considered a violation,” so no legal action would be taken against the churches, but police still urged “all churches and houses of worship to continue with virtual services, including for Easter.”

In Fayetteville, drive-in services were allowed, and Northwood Temple Pentecostal Holiness Church had an Easter service at 10 a.m. Pastor John Hedgepeth told NSJ the church promoted the celebration and was expecting potentially hundreds of cars. The service could be heard on 92.7 FM to allow attendees to sing along to the hymns played inside the sanctuary and listen to Hedgepeth’s sermon from a raised platform outside, all while congregants remained inside their vehicles.

“Other churches are not open. They are going to have it by video, or by online streaming, but I wanted to do it live,” Hedgepeth told NSJ. “I wanted to do it in a way they’d never done it. Drive-in. Drive-up. You can still be private in your car.”

Hedgepeth said the mayor sent rules for them to abide by when they did their service, including how many feet apart to have the vehicles. Northwood Temple had purchased hundreds of communion sets, with sealed wafers and cups of juice, but had to call off the plan to distribute them after word from the city.

“They said don’t do communion, and I’m a good man. I try to do what the mayor says,” Hedgepeth said. “We’re law-abiding. I want to do things the way they said and let them know we’re cooperating with them.”

Benham, though, said he will not be cooperating with Charlotte’s demands for his group to stop counseling women outside the abortion clinic, even after the arrest, since he believes the city’s requests violate the letter and spirit of the law.

“Heck yeah we are, of course,” Benham said when asked whether his group is still present at that clinic. “We haven’t stopped. Every day they’re open, we’re there.”

Benham said demand for abortion hasn’t slowed down, and his group offers a social service that is federally protected because the mothers are offered housing assistance, child-care assistance, mentorship and much more.

“The day I was arrested, while I was being cuffed, two mothers chose to go onto the mobile ultrasound unit and both of them chose life for their kids and are now plugged into our mentor network,” Benham said. “Two mothers — so was it worth it for me? Absolutely.”