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Some Panola churches returning to regular services Sunday; no tickets are expected

Panola County pastors who choose to open churches for regular services before Gov. Tate Reeves lifts the statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people are doing so on their own, and not with the blessing of county officials. Violations of the Governor’s order is legally considered a crime, punishable by a fine and/or jail time, but the enforcement of the law is left solely to the discretion of the county’s highest law enforcement officer, Sheriff Shane Phelps.

Whether the pastors of the churches who have chosen to announce regular services beginning tomorrow (April 26) will be cited for presiding over gatherings of more than 10 people in violation of the law, will be up to Phelps. The board of supervisors has no authority to instruct the sheriff which laws to enforce.

Several small churches have met sporadically since the Governor’s initial order, but this weekend’s services will be the first time that the county’s largest church, Hosanna Family Worship Center on Hentz Rd. near Pope, holds full services, including children’s church. Other county churches have followed Hosanna’s lead and will also be having services.

Phelps, who attends Hosanna, said he has talked with that pastor and several others who plan to re-open tomorrow and is completely satisfied the plans each have made for keeping members separated during services and providing for disinfection of door knobs, bathrooms, and spaces in common areas.

“First, I’m a Christian, and then I’m the sheriff, so I can tell you that we aren’t going to be riding around and looking for churches tomorrow,” Phelps said. “I personally have a problem with an order that allows people to stand shoulder to shoulder in Walmart and Lowe’s, but says people can’t gather at their churches.”

Phelps said he also knows the Governor has spoken directly about the matter of congregations meeting after citizens sitting in their cars in the parking lot of a church in Greenville were written tickets, saying that he would prefer that churches continue to meet for parking lot church, or online only, but noted that no government body has the Constitutional authority to prohibit the gathering of citizens for the purpose of worship.

“These pastors that have said they are opening churches this week are doing what they believe is best for their members,” Phelps said. “Every one of those churches are also giving their members the opportunity to come, and have said that any member who doesn’t feel comfortable coming inside should attend in the parking lot or watch over the internet. That’s a lot different than telling people they have to come to church.”

Board of Supervisors president Cole Flint said Saturday he is encouraged more every day when positive cases of coronavirus infections in Panola seem to indicate the county has seen the worst of the pandemic. Flint said the more than 250 reported new cases in Mississippi each morning are also a positive sign because the numbers are not rising even with a large increase of tests being performed each day.

Flint said he believes the Governor’s shelter in place order from April 1, and the county officials’ efforts to control opportunities for the spread of the virus helped Panola County keep lower levels of positive cases, and ultimately saved lives in the county.

The Board of Supervisors were criticized by some when they attempted to limit gatherings, including those in church parking lots. At the time, the supervisors were simply following the guidelines of the Governor’s order, Flint said, and when the state’s top executive made public comment that indicated he did not oppose congregations gathering in parking lots as long as members stayed in cars, the board followed up with an amendment of their resolution to match the Governor’s wishes.

“From the very start of this pandemic the goal of the board of supervisors has been to follow the orders sent down by the governor of the state, and protect our county,” Flint said. “For reasons that go beyond this situation we are in right now, it’s just not a good idea for all of us in Panola County to not follow what comes from the governor.”

Whether the Governor, or other state officials, view Panola County’s decision to not enforce the 10-person limit on gatherings as direct flaunting of the law remains to been seen, but Reeve’s statements and public position so far indicate that church services will be viewed more as civil disobedience that will be tolerated, just not encouraged.

With 82 counties in the state, all operating under a slight variation of the Governor’s pandemic orders, observers believe it unlikely that political paybacks – loss of state funding for projects and infrastructure – will result, so long as Panola County pastors are following the courses of action they have chosen to this point.

Phelps said he can think of no other situation, or than the gathering of people for worship, that would warrant the same response from his department as will the matter of church attendance. “Church is just something that is different that any other type of gathering, and that’s how I’m looking at this thing, be it right or wrong,” he said.

Flint said he agrees with pastors who say congregations need to worship together as soon as possible, even if it means technically breaking state law for the next three weeks. His reservations are for those who have other motives, and for the general perception of Panola County not fully complying with the Governor’s order.

At at special meeting of the supervisors Friday (April 24), county officials discussed the matter of church openings for a few minutes but took no specific actions. It was during that discussion that one supervisor said a pastor who has announced Sunday services are back to normal at his church told him one of the reasons that members needed to be together again was directly tied to finances, saying his church had a payroll to meet and needed to meet in a normal setting.

Inside the city limits of Batesville, most churches are abiding by the law, and none of the larger churches have announced a return to regular services. Most of those continue to hold parking lot and online services only.