KEY POINTS

  • First Pentacostal Church in Mississippi was burnt down and graffiti was found in the parking lot calling the congregration hypocrites
  • The graffiti was in reference to the church's lawsuit against Holly Springs, Mississippi, over its coronavirus lockdown order
  • A citation was filed against the church for violating the city's order on April 10 when around 40 people were inside the church and not practicing social distancing

Authorities said Friday they suspected arson in a fire that destroyed a Mississippi church fighting the state’s coronavirus lockdown. The fire broke out at First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs on Wednesday.

“This is not who we are,” Gov. Tate Reeves said at his daily coronavirus press conference. “Obviously, we have to ensure that this investigation is done, and that it is completed. 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 whoever burned this church down.”

Jerry Waldrop, the church’s pastor, said he wasn’t sure who would want to burn down the church.

“We’ve wracked our brains, and we have no idea,” Waldrop told reporters. “No enemies that we know of. We don’t know anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this.”

Police said graffiti was found in the church parking lot that read: “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits (sic).”

The graffiti is in reference to the church’s effort to reopen and hold service despite ongoing concerns over coronavirus. While Gov. Tate Reeves issued a safer-at-home order on April 27 to start reopening the state, some counties and cities maintained tougher restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

Holly Springs City Attorney Shirley Byers said the city issued its own safer-at-home order on March 23, and it did not consider churches an essential service. However, this conflicted with Reeves order, which counted churches as essential services and led to tensions with First Pentecostal Church.

“It is very clear local municipalities can have guidelines that are more strict than the governor’s guidelines, but they cannot have guidelines that directly conflict with what we have put in place,” Reeves said.

It came to ahead on April 10 when around 40 people gathered inside the church for mass and did not practice social distancing, earning the church a citation for violating the city's lockdown order. While the order was amended on April 24, allowing churches to hold drive-thru services, First Pentecostal Church responded by filing a lawsuit to combat the city’s order.

“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,” attorney Stephen Crampton, who represents the church, told reporters.

A view of empty pews at an Easter Sunday service at the Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where the faithful are still being encouraged to attend in person despite a government ban on large gatherings A view of empty pews at an Easter Sunday service at the Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where the faithful are still being encouraged to attend in person despite a government ban on large gatherings Photo: AFP / Alex Edelman