The New York Times Company
May 22, 2020
The burning of a church in northern Mississippi this week is being investigated as arson due to a spray-painted message on the scene that appeared to criticize the church's defiance of coronavirus restrictions.
The First Pentecostal Church had sued the city of Holly Springs, which is approximately an hour southeast of Memphis, Tennessee, arguing that its order to stay home had violated the church's right to freedom of expression and interfered with the capacity of its members to worship.
After firefighters put out the blaze early Wednesday morning, police found a message, "I bet you stay home now, hypocrites," spray-painted on the floor near church doors, according to Maj. Kelly. McMillen of the Marshall County Sheriff's Department.
A photograph of the graffiti also appears to show an atomic symbol with an "A,quot; in the center, which is sometimes used as a logo for atheist groups.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said on Twitter that he was "heartbroken and furious,quot; at the fire.
McMillen said police had found a can of white spray paint and a flashlight at the scene. He said no suspects had been identified, but that investigators, including those from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and possibly the FBI, would pass through the scene on Friday.
"We will probably be there until it gets dark tomorrow night because we are going to have to go through each and every one of them," he said.
After mounting frustration with city executive orders, the first of which was issued on March 23, church pastor Jerry Waldrop confronted city officials at a rally at a local Walmart. The church also filed a lawsuit against the city in April.
A church attorney said in the lawsuit that police had summoned Waldrop at Easter for holding a service in violation of city order and then closed a Bible study.
In a dazzling opinion presented last week in response to the lawsuit, Judge Michael Mills wrote that he feared the church "would proceed in an excessively reckless and arrogant manner and with insufficient respect for the magnitude of the health crisis that the COVID pandemic -19 gifts. "
The judge refused to block the order to stay in the city home, as requested by the church, noting that the city, in a subsequent executive order, allowed drive-in services.
On Friday, Nick Fish, president of the American Atheists, a group that uses the logo found at the scene, strongly condemned the burning of the church, calling it "an act of heinous destruction."
"I dislike that someone associates a symbol of our community with something as incompatible with our values as atheists," Fish said in a statement.
Arguments over whether religious services can be held in person have become increasingly controversial in recent weeks.
Some churches in Minnesota this week said they would resume services in defiance of the governor's orders. That followed a ruling by a federal judge in North Carolina that allowed indoor religious gatherings after the governor said they were banned. In California, five Justice Department attorneys said in a letter to the governor that state restrictions on fighting the virus discriminated against religious institutions, and more than 1,200 pastors signed a statement protesting the restrictions.
McMillen said the fire had shocked Holly Springs, a city of fewer than 8,000 people.
"Fortunately, with the Lord's help," he said, "we can get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible."
Get email alerts from Boston.com:
Sign up and receive coronavirus news and breaking updates, from our newsroom to your inbox.
Boston.com News Alerts
Sign up to receive email alerts from Boston.com and receive coronavirus news and late-breaking updates, from our newsroom to your inbox.
Thanks for registering!