‘Stay home now you hypokrits’: U.S. church flouting COVID-19 restrictions burned to the ground
An image showing First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs, Mississippi, after an unknown person set it on fire. Tate Reeves/Twitter
Mississippi investigators found the words “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits” spray-painted on the parking lot of a Holly Springs church that burned down early Wednesday morning, a month after the church had legally challenged the city’s stay-at-home orders.
Investigators believe the fire at First Pentecostal Church to be suspected arson, Maj. Kelly McMillen of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office told BuzzFeed News.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a tweet he’s “heartbroken and furious” after news broke of the fire.
I am heartbroken and furious. In Mississippi, a church was just burned to the ground. They had been trying to open services. There was graffiti on the lot which read “Bet you stay home now you hypocrites.”— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) May 21, 2020
What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country. pic.twitter.com/TdGHqs9evv
The city’s attorney Shirley Byers said First Pentecostal received a violation on April 10 after 40 people had gathered inside for a bible study.
The church filed a lawsuit days later against the city for its restrictions on in-person worship services, NBC News reported. The 14-page suit claims police officers disrupted the church’s mid-week bible study and its Easter services 10 days prior.
Jerry Waldrop, a pastor at First Pentecostal, told WMC5 that the church would host outdoor services whenever it was possible, but would move indoors if the weather turned inclement.
At the end of March, the state had included churches in its list of essential businesses, however the city of Holly Springs did not.
“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 at a news conference Wednesday.
The city updated its restrictions at the end of April to include worship services.
Waldrop said he could not conceive who might burn the church down. “No enemies that we know of. We don’t know anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this.”
A lawyer representing the church said he believes there’s a connection between the lawsuit and the fire. “We don’t know any other way to understand the spray painted message that said, ‘Bet you stay home now you hypokrits,’” Steve Crampton told BuzzFeed News on Thursday.
At a daily news conference, Gov. Reeves expressed his dismay. “This is not who we are,” he said. “Obviously, we have to ensure that this investigation is done and that it is completed,” Reeves said. “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 whomever burned this church down.”
Earlier this week, the governor also released guidelines on safe worship, now that Mississippi is easing some of its coronavirus restrictions. The guidelines include maintaining distance between household groups, holding separate services for vulnerable populations and avoiding shared meals and the passing of plates and cups.