City of Holly Springs Mayor responds following suspicious fire at local church

City of Holly Springs Mayor responds following suspicious fire at local church
WATCH: Investigators say north Mississippi church fire was intentionally set

HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. — The Mayor of Holly Springs sent a response Monday after an appeals court judge commented on the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs’ federal lawsuit against the City of Holly Springs.

The lawsuit was filed after the city cited the church for violating the Stay At Home order by having services in the church instead of a drive-up service on Easter Sunday.

RELATED: Mississippi Gov. 'heartbroken and furious’ after church destroyed by suspicious fire

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FOX13 has reached out for the judge’s exact comments. We will share those when they are available.

The Mayor’s response reads as follows:

As a result of a worldwide pandemic completely out of our control the City of Holly Springs took a position entirely focused on doing the right thing and saving lives while protecting everyone in our community, including the members and friends of First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs.

The City of Holly Springs achieved nearly one hundred percent collaboration pertaining to the cities, Safer at Home order from all churches in our community. They cooperated not because they felt the city was challenging their constitutional right to freedom of religion, but because they understood the need to do whatever humanly possible to save lives while protecting the membership of their congregations. I want to pause here and thank those churches and all other businesses and agencies for working with us to protect our community.

At no point was the City of Holly Springs attempting to restrict churches from worship. This false narrative perpetrated by a limited few including the appeals court judge who attempted to connect the burning of (First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs) to the City of Holly Springs Safer At Home order and the lawsuit filed is extremely irresponsible. No city would reach so low as to turn a legitimate effort to protect and save lives to a deliberate act to destroy a house of worship. For any judge to intentionally mischaracterize the City of Holly Springs as being unsympathetic or worse somehow encouraging such an act of destruction and violence is conduct beneath the position of an appellate court judge. The fact is as Mayor on behalf of our entire administration, we would like nothing more than for the federal investigation into the arson to reveal whoever is responsible for burning the church to the ground. The sooner they are brought to justice the better.

Turning the COVID-19 pandemic into a political or ideological war of us against them is the most gross display of divisive rhetoric I have ever witnessed. Let me be clear, the CIty of Holly Springs has never been against any church. Our record of working in unity with and seeking the advice from many churches and the ecumenical leadership of this community is a matter of record. Churches and their congregants have always been a vital part of Holly Springs, essential to the fabric, strength and perseverance of our beloved community,

I am an American who actually served this country as a United States Marine for twelve years and was called to active duty during Operation Desert Storm. I understand fully what Memorial Day means to this country and the freedoms many of my fellow servicemen and service women gave their lives for. My God bless the City of Holly Springs and continue to bless the United States of America.

Kevin O. Buck,

Mayor of The City of Holly Springs

This is the ruling the Mayor referenced:

IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No. 20-60399

FIRST PENTECOSTAL CHURCH OF HOLLY SPRINGS,

Plaintiff - Appellant

v.

CITY OF HOLLY SPRINGS, MISSISSIPPI,

Defendant - Appellee

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi

Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SOUTHWICK, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges. PER CURIAM: Our sole appellate jurisdiction in this case rests upon denial of an injunction implied from the choice by the district court not to rule in an expedited fashion. After briefing, it remains plain that the court is being requested to enjoin a shifting regulatory regime not yet settled as to its regulation and regulatory effect, such as the apparent acceptance by the Church of the Governor’s regulations. That settlement is best made by the district court in the first instance. Lest we in error step upon treasured values of religious freedom and personal liberties we stay our hand and return this case to the district court for decision footed upon a record reflecting current conditions.

Accordingly, we recognize that in this fast-shifting landscape of COVID19 regulations, temporary deferral of a decision may effectively be a permanent denial. In the interim, pending the district court’s decision, the City is enjoined from enforcing against the Church the Faith Based Organizations sections of Executive Order 6 and Executive Order 7. We do this upon the assurances by the Church that it will “satisf[y] the requirements entitling similarly situated businesses and operations to reopen.” In this vein, we refer the Church to the Governor’s new “Safe Worship Guidelines for In-Person Worship Services,” which appear similarly rigorous to the City’s requirements for reopening businesses but are tailored to church operations. These guidelines, if implemented in the spirit of the City’s orders, may help the Church abide by its safety pledge during this intervening period while the district court considers the injunction request and while the City continues the ongoing process of evaluating and revising its orders related to COVID-19. IT IS ORDERED that appellant’s emergency motion for injunction pending appeal is granted as set out above. To the extent appellant seeks further relief from this court, the motion is denied. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that appellant’s alternative motion to expedite the appeal is denied as moot. This case is remanded to the district court.

DON R. WILLETT, Circuit Judge, concurring. The First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs was burned to the ground earlier this week. Graffiti spray-painted in the church parking lot sneered, “Bet you Stay home Now YOU HYPOKRITS.” The City mentions the church burning in its latest brief, but in a manner less commendable than condemnable. One might expect a city to express sympathy or outrage (or both) when a neighborhood house of worship is set ablaze. One would be mistaken. Rather than condemn the crime’s depravity, the City seized advantage, insisting that the Church’s First Amendment claim necessarily went up in smoke when the church did: “the Church was destroyed from an arson fire . . . making the permanent injunction claim moot.” This argument is shameful. When the parishioners of First Pentecostal Church leave their homes on Sundays, they are not going to church; they are the church. The church is not the building. When the New Testament speaks of the church, it never refers to brick-and-mortar places where people gather, but to flesh-and-blood people who gather together.1 Think people, not steeple. I concur in the court’s grant of injunctive relief. Singling out houses of worship—and only houses of worship, it seems—cannot possibly be squared with the First Amendment. Given the Church’s pledge “to incorporate the public health guidelines applicable to other entities,” why can its members be trusted to adhere to social-distancing in a secular setting (a gym) but not in a sacred one (a church)? Their sanctuary may be destroyed (for now), but when congregants congregate this Sunday, whether indoors in another facility (which has been offered) or outdoors in a parking lot, they will come together knowing that a church is not a building you go to but a family you belong to.

1 “Ekklesia,” the Greek word for church, means the gathered ones, an assembly of the faithful. See Ekklesia, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Alexander P. Kashdan ed., 1991) (“personification of the church”).