MASSENA — A Massena church that held its first drive-in service earlier in May can continue those services after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced this week that he encouraged drive-in and parking lot gatherings, which many churches have already been doing.
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.
He retained the services of the Rutherford Institute, a national, nonprofit civil liberties organization after he alleged he was told the following day not to continue the services.
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.”
Police Chief Adam J. Love said that wasn’t the case, and that “the conversation between the pastor and I was cordial and informational. I would not characterize it as threatening in any manner.”
The Rev. Mr. Ryman continued to hold the drive-in services, which were announced in a Facebook posting on Wednesday.
The posting said, “Central Bible Baptist Church is moving forth in continuing with drive-in services on Sundays at 1pm. We understand that our local officials have made statements questionable to ours. At this time our attorneys at the Rutherford Institute are watching and reading all that comes out. They are handling all the legalities and politics.
“We have no ill will towards our local officials. We believe them to have been outstanding for their work for our community and we are thankful. We honor and love our officials working day in and out to fight for and protect us. Central and their Pastor are Not against them. We’re not rebels. We stand and live by the truth and principles of the Word of God! We are simply trying to have church services, without conflict, safely, legally and peaceably.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Cuomo encouraged those types of services. He also announced that although public gatherings such as religious ceremonies were part of the fourth phase of reopening the state, religious institutions could hold gatherings of no more than 10 people, with proper social distancing and the use of masks.
John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, acknowledged the governor’s stance in a follow-up letter to Chief Love and Mayor Timmy J. Currier on Wednesday.
“Today at his daily COVID-19 briefing, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that drive-in worship services like those conducted by Central Bible Baptist Church are allowed within the state. The Governor’s office confirmed this in a press release posted this afternoon,” the letter said.
“The Governor also announced that beginning Thursday, May 21st, religious gatherings of no more than 10 people will be allowed statewide where strict social distancing measures are enforced and all participants wear masks. Additionally, drive-in and parking lot services will also be allowed beginning Thursday,” Mr. Whitehead wrote.
“In light of Governor Cuomo’s announcement at his daily COVID-19 briefing, there can be no remaining doubt that Pastor Ryman of Central Bible Baptist Church in the Town of Massena may hold drive-in worship services as described in our previous letter of May 15, 2020,” the letter said.
Mr. Whitehead said the church had conducted and planned to continue conducting the drive-in worship services at a parking lot adjacent to the church building. He said the Rev. Mr. Ryman would continue to use a low-power FM transmitter to communicate with worshippers, who would maintain social distancing protocols at all times.
“Although federal and state governments have adopted specific restrictive measures in an effort to decelerate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, as we made clear in our previous correspondence and as the courts have affirmed, the current public health situation has not resulted in the suspension of fundamental constitutional rights such as religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right of assembly,” Mr. Whitehead wrote.
He said the Rutherford Institute “will continue to monitor the situation in Massena on behalf of Pastor Ryman and Central Bible Baptist Church in order to ensure that government officials abide by the requirements of the First Amendment and respect the right of the Church to conduct its drive-in worship services.”