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Church cancels planned gathering

NATCHEZ — An Adams County pastor who held a Palm Sunday service despite a shelter-in-place order issued by Gov. Tate Reeves that prohibits gatherings of 10 or more agreed to cancel his planned Tuesday night Bible study, county officials said.

The Rev. Stanley Searcy Sr., pastor of New Hope the Vision Center Missionary Baptist Church in Adams County, told Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten, who is a member of Searcy’s church, that he would not hold a planned Tuesday night Bible study, Patten said.

Whether Searcy will hold an Easter service, however, remains to be seen, said Scott Slover, Adams County Board of Supervisors attorney.

“We are all working with the church to see if they’re going to comply with Sunday’s service,” Slover said, adding that if Searcy does not agree not to hold an in-person Sunday service the county is prepared to issue a temporary restraining order that would force the issue to court.

Both Patten and Slover said enforcing Reeves’ shelter-in-place order on churches is complicated not only because of the way the order is written but also because Reeves’ has made conflicting statements about enforcing the order on churches.

During a Monday press conference, Reeves was asked specifically how his order affects churches in light of Searcy’s Palm Sunday meeting.

Reeves told reporters he was not sure the state could prohibit churches from meeting and then said, “People do not need to be going to large gatherings of churches of more than 10 people. It is not smart to do that, and I do believe that it is in violation of the order of keeping folks from being in groups of larger than 10 people.”

Patten said the conflicted statements are keeping him from enforcing the order.

“Tate Reeves said yes he feels like it is a violation of the order, but he also feels like the state government can’t enforce it,” Patten said. “If you are going to put an order out that you are going to feel is unconstitutional you need to come back and put one out that is.”

Patten said he has talked to officials with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the Mississippi State Department of Health.

“They both had the same stance that they are not sure that it can be enforced,” Patten said. “That is why instead of putting it in the enforcement side of things in his order he put it as a recommendation. The word ‘recommendation.’”

Patten said he wishes Reeves would clarify his order.

“He needs to clear it up though because you can’t sit here and say on one side it is a violation but on the other side you don’t feel like the state government can enforce it,” Patten said. “That puts every sheriff and police chief in this state in a compromising situation because why would you put an order out and tell us to enforce it if you’re not sure it is legal to enforce it?”

Messages left for Reeves and with the Mississippi Attorney General’s office seeking comment for this story were not returned.

Searcy also did not return messages.

If Searcy plans to hold an Easter Sunday service, however, Slover said the county is prepared to push it to court through a temporary restraining order.

“We would get into court before that and try to get the rights and obligations clarified but right now they are trying to work through those things,” Slover said. “The goal would be to have him and the county and someone from the state all together and present to a court, so people have a right to present their positions and for the court to make a decision on what are the rights and duties and so forth.”

Slover said he hopes it doesn’t go that far.

“I’m really hopeful that we can come to an agreement so that people are safe, and yet their people can worship in a way that is respectful as possible towards them,” Slover said.