Authorities are investigating the burning of a Mississippi church as a potential arson. The fire comes less than a month after the church filed suit arguing the city’s stay-at-home order was unconstitutional.
First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, located in the city of Holly Springs, MS, was destroyed by a fire on Wednesday, May 20. Firefighters responded to the blaze at approximately 2 a.m., and were unable to save the building.
Fire investigators described the incident as an “explosion” from the back of the church, which further damaged the front of the building. The church has been declared a total loss.
At the scene, several cans of spray paint were recovered. A message reading “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic]” was found painted on the church’s parking lot.
These factors, said Marshall County official Kelly McMillen, have led authorities to suspect arson.
“We do believe that based on the evidence and what we have seen at the scene and on top of the hill this was an arson,” said McMillen to local media.
Pastor Jerry Waldrop, who has led the congregation for more than three decades, said he would continue to “keep the faith,” and “keep doing what we have always done.”
“I’ll get with our faithful people, and maybe we’ll rent a building or whatever we need to do for the time being,” Waldrop said. He said that his church “has the means” to rebuild, and that he was unable to come up with any potential suspects.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said on Twitter Thursday that he was “heartbroken and furious” to hear of the burned church.
“What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country,” said Reeves.
Waldrop, through his church, filed suit against Holly Springs on April 23, one day after his weekly Bible study was broken up by three members of the Holly Springs Police Department. On Easter Sunday, Waldrop was cited for violating the city’s stay-at-home order by hosting a service inside the church building instead of in the parking lot.
To protest the Easter Sunday citation, Waldrop took his congregation en masse to a nearby Walmart, where they were permitted to gather without incident.
Churches were among the establishments listed as “nonessential” in the March 30, 2020 stay-at-home order issued by Holly Springs. According to the lawsuit, the order’s terms were so far-reaching that Waldrop would not be allowed to enter his own office at the church by himself.
In the lawsuit, Waldrop claims that his First Amendment rights were violated by the selective enforcement of the stay-at-home order. He states that efforts were taken to ensure social distancing at the indoor services, and that the services were indoors due to inclement weather.
There have been 68 reported cases of COVID-19 in Marshall County, with three deaths. Two of the cases were connected to long-term care facilities.
Holly Springs is not the only Mississippi city home to a controversial stay-at-home order. In April, the city of Greenville withdrew an order that forbade even socially-distant drive-in church services.
On Wednesday, April 15, the City of Greenville announced on its website that “all drive in and parking lot church services are allowed as long as families stay in their cars with windows up and adhere to all state and federal social distancing guidelines.”
Mayor Errick D. Simmons (D) was quoted saying that he was “pleased to announce that Governor Tate Reeves has responded to my public request for definitive guidance on drive-in and parking lot church services. Thank you, Governor Reeves.”
Prior to rescinding the order, a church had been fined for having a parking lot service, and Greenville police blocked the parking lot of another church to prevent a gathering of parked cars.