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A symphony of car horns erupted as Chuck Salvo climbed onto the stage to preach.

Salvo faced the cars and lifted his arms to the sky.

“Happy Resurrection Day,” he said. And the horns blared.

Salvo, the pastor of On Fire Christian Church, then began his Easter Sunday sermon. He was on a stage in a parking lot. He had no choir, only speakers to play music from a laptop and a microphone to amplify his voice.

The On Fire Christian Church, unlike many churches across Kentucky, opted to hold service on Sunday against the urging of city and state government officials. About 100 cars pulled into the parking lot off New Cut Road Sunday morning and were guided to parking spots — each about five feet apart — by a crew of men wearing surgical masks. The men ordered people to stay in their cars, and keep their windows only cracked.

Everyone, it seemed, followed directions.

But by holding the service, Salvo was going against the wishes of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who strongly encouraged faith leaders to halt Easter services as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and sicken. As of Saturday evening, Kentucky had recorded 1,840 coronavirus cases and 94 deaths.

Orders Launched Political Fight

Jacob Ryan

Cars in the parking lot of On Fire Christian Church

Fischer’s actions were quickly criticized by Republican leaders including Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. And a federal judge on Saturday shot down Fischer’s attempt to curtail religious gatherings, after Salvo’s church filed a federal lawsuit against Fischer. 

U.S. District Judge Justin Walker issued a temporary restraining order banning Fischer from enforcing any prohibition of drive-in church services at On Fire Christian Church.

Walker said Fischer had “criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.”

“The Mayor’s decision is stunning,” Walker said in the order. “And it is beyond all reason, unconstitutional.”

Fischer, on Twitter, said Saturday evening that he never sought to ban drive-in church services — “As we would have explained in court if we had been allowed,” he said.

Fischer said he only urged religious leaders to forgo traditional services on Easter Sunday, and that he did so to “protect my city and its residents from spread of the COVID-19 virus.” 

“Let’s don’t play politics with this,” Fischer said. “Science is clear: the virus wants to spread to as many as possible, and it kills.”

Gov. Andy Beshear also threatened to have police record the license plates of people gathered at churches to celebrate Easter, though he said he supports drive-in services if rules are followed. He shared videos through the weekend from pastors who planned to hold remote services, and noted that the vast majority of churches statewide were not planning in-person gatherings. 

A report from The Courier-Journal showed vehicles at Maryville Baptist Church in Bullitt County on Sunday with their license plates covered with paper and tape. A Kentucky State Police spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he told the newspaper that state troopers across the state had responded to “between two and five complaints about church services.” He said troopers had found no violations of CDC guidelines, “with Maryville apparently the exception.”

A spokesperson for Louisville Metro Police did not respond to a request for comment on local police response to Beshear’s order. 

On Sunday, at On Fire Christian Church, there was no sign of police or local health department officials.

‘We have a right’

 

Jacob Ryan

On Sunday, the On Fire church parking lot quickly filled with cars — some filled with people, others with just one person. 

Christin Hess doesn’t usually come to On Fire Christian Church on Sundays. She attends a different church. But she went to On Fire this Easter because she wanted to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus — and make a statement.

“I don’t think our Constitutional rights should be taken away or infringed upon,” she said from the passenger seat of a Kia. “We have a right to be here.”

Hess, 36, said she wouldn’t be alive if not for her faith in God. Now, more than ever, is a time for people to put faith in God and “talk to Jesus, and pray and have more church.”

She went to the Easter service with her mother, and they’ve been following her own church’s sermons each Sunday online since the pandemic began. But she says some people without internet access rely on services like these, in parking lots. 

Government officials have no right to meddle in religion, she said. 

As Salvo began his service, Hess and her mother turned their attention to the stage.

Salvo first went through some “preliminaries.” He said the church was adhering to the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“We do a great job of this,” he said. 

He thanked first responders. He unfurled an American flag, lifted his arms and circled the stage as “God Bless the U.S.A.” blared on the speakers. He led a prayer, asking God to watch over President Trump and U.S. senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell as well as Beshear and Fischer.

“We want to pray for these people,” he said. “We don’t want to bash them.”

As the sermon continued, Hess held a phone out the window to record. She bobbed her head with the music and smiled as Salvo preached about the resurrection of Jesus.

Neither she or her mother wore masks to cover their face, and neither seemed to worry much about the spreading pandemic.

“I’m not afraid,” Hess said. “Because I am covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.”

This story has been updated to clarify Gov. Andy Beshear’s position on drive-in services.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.