MASSENA — Village of Massena officials say there were no threats made to arrest or impose a fine after a Massena pastor held a drive-in service at his church.
Pastor Samson Ryman from the Central Bible Baptist Church conducted his first drive-in service on May 3. While he stood on a porch attached to the Columbia Drive church, attendees were to remain in their vehicles at all times with their windows up and tuned in to the service on their radio through a low-power FM transmitter.
“The way he did it, I think, with the drive-in service and low-power FM transmitter was like talking to someone on a cell phone basically, and he kept distance. That way people can go ahead and exercise their rights and do it safely, and that’s what we’ve been recommending. I think he did it a good way,” said John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute, which is representing the Rev. Mr. Ryman.
The Rutherford Institute is a national, nonprofit civil liberties organization. The Rev. Mr. Ryman contacted them for assistance.
“We told him we thought that he had a First Amendment right as long as he did it the way he was doing it,” Mr. Whitehead said during a phone interview on Tuesday.
A news release from the Rutherford Institute says that the day following the service, “police issued an informal cease-and-desist order to Pastor Ryman, warning him that he would be subject to prosecution for holding any further drive-in services and could face a fine of up to $1,000.”
But Police Chief Adam J. Love said that wasn’t the case.
“The conversation between the pastor and I was cordial and informational. I would not characterize it as threatening in any manner,” he said Tuesday.
In a statement released on Monday, he said, “To date the Massena Police Department has not charged or made any threat of arrest with any Executive Order violation issued by Governor Cuomo, nor are we able to impose fines. We have only educated, supported and showed understanding when our partners, businesses and citizens express their concerns during this difficult time. The Massena Police Department strives to keep our community safe and protected, especially, during this public health crisis, and we will continue to do so.
“The Massena Police Department takes people’s Civil Rights and the Constitution of the United States seriously. We believe freedoms are paramount for every citizen. With the current Executive Order put in place by Governor Cuomo, we have had to assist with interpretation and compliance questions from partners, businesses and citizens.”
Mr. Whitehead said they sent a letter to Chief Love, indicating that if he moved forward with any action, they would begin legal action.
“We sent a letter that backed them off. He held the services Sunday and no one came and stopped it. They misapplied the law,” Mr. Whitehead said. “Our letter was very, very clear what the law is. It was saying either back off or I’ll have to file a lawsuit, and they backed off so far and that’s good.”
He said guidance from the state was “houses of worship are not ordered closed, however it is strongly recommended no congregate services be held and social distance maintained.”
“That’s the actual quote from the state of New York. So he was doing that. I think the local police just misread it,” he said. “They were spaced out. There were 23 persons and 18 vehicles the day the police cited him.”
The letter to Chief Love notes, “The Church, its leaders and its members are being unfairly subjected to threats that are grounded in a misunderstanding of the law and a misapplication of the Governor’s Executive Orders, which severely chills their exercise of the fundamental right to practice their religion.”
“They’ve seen that it didn’t make sense and they’re backed off. He’s holding his services. He’s doing it very responsibly. I think that’s the way to do it. The First Amendment is very important. We don’t want to throw away our rights — the right to freedom and worship, the right to assembly. The thing to remember is during these times of crisis, our rights do not go away. They’re still there as long as we are responsible,” Mr. Whitehead said.
Mayor Timmy J. Currier, in a statement released on Monday, said they were not taking away anyone’s rights, but were focused on public health and public safety.
“From day one of this crisis, the team in our Emergency Operation Center have worked with citizens, nearly all the essential businesses, several businesses that are closed and many groups in Massena to think through the executive orders and come to an understanding of how they are applicable. Public health and public safety have always been a vital part of this approach, while always respecting people’s rights,” Mr. Currier said.
“From our perspective, we attempted to do that with the Central Bible Baptist Church. We apparently were not successful, and I regret that. I also regret that when the pastor stopped outside my house last week and said, ‘we are praying for you,’ he didn’t take the opportunity to raise this issue with me and perhaps we could have come to a resolution. I have always believed that potential issues can be resolved with communication beforehand,” he said.