Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said he’s “heartbroken and furious” after a fire this week at a church that has challenged coronavirus restrictions. The fire is being investigated as arson.
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The fire Wednesday in Holly Springs destroyed the First Pentecostal Church, and investigators found graffiti in the church parking lot that reads, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits,” NBC affiliate WMC of Memphis reported.
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The church was “burned to the ground” and had been trying to open services, Reeves tweeted Thursday.
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First Pentecostal filed a lawsuit last month against the city over its public health order on in-person worship services, the station reported.
“This is not who we are,” the governor said at a daily news conference on the coronavirus epidemic and the state’s response.
“Obviously, we have to ensure that this investigation is done and that it is completed,” Reeves said. “But if this is in fact what it looks like, I want you to know that we’re going to do everything in our power to find whomever burned this church down.”
Stephen Crampton, attorney for the church, told WMC that he has no doubt that the fire was connected to the lawsuit.
“To find that that graffiti is spray painted in there — ‘I bet you stay home now, you hypocrites,’ right — seems very clearly directed at this particular lawsuit and the church’s stand for its own Constitutional rights,” he said.
The lawsuit deals with alleged police disruption of a Bible study and Easter service.
Holly Springs City Attorney Shirley Byers told The Associated Press the church was issued a violation on April 10 after about 40 people had gathered inside and were 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 indoor only when weather prohibits outdoor services.
Reeves has never outright prohibited worship services and has classified places like churches as “essential” in state stay-at-home orders.
But, he has encouraged churches to use alternatives like online and parking lot services.
Earlier this week, Reeves released guidance on resuming in-person faith gatherings, which include cleaning and disinfection, holding separate services for vulnerable populations and creating a 6-foot buffer between household groups.
Holly Springs is a community of around 7,600 in the northern part of the state near the Tennessee border, a little more than 40 miles southeast of Memphis.
Mississippi has begun reopening other parts of its economy and activities. On Tuesday, Reeves signed an order allowing places that include tattoo parlors and dance studios to reopen.
As of the end of the business day Wednesday, Mississippi had confirmed 12,222 COVID-19 cases and had had 580 deaths, according to the state health department.