Massena church causes controversy by holding drive-in worship service
Thursday, May 21, 2020 - 9:11 am

BY ANDY GARDNER
North Country This Week

MASSENA -- A local church caused a controversy by holding a drive-in worship service earlier this month.

On Sunday, May 3, the Central Bible Baptist Church, 21 Columbia Road, held a drive-in service. Twenty-three people in 18 vehicles attended. That number is according to a letter written to the Massena Police Department from the Rutherford Institute. The organization in the letter says they have “been authorized to represent the First Amendment interests of Pastor Samson Ryman and the Central Bible Baptist Church.”

The letter alleges village police threatened the church with a fine up to $1,000 for violating the New York State on PAUSE order, the governor’s executive order that closes non-essential businesses and bars large gatherings.

“Pastor Ryman advised the Massena Police Department of the Church’s plan for drive-in services. Although Pastor Ryman had previously been warned against holding an open-air service, he was not expressly prohibited from conducting the drive-in services and, in fact, was left with the impression that such services would be permissible,” the letter says.

Ryman could not be reached for comment.

In a written statement, Massena Police Chief Adam Love said no one threatened the church. He says it was “cordial and informational” and “would not characterize it as threatening in any manner.”

“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 orders put in place by Governor Cuomo, we have had to assist with interpretation and compliance questions from partners, businesses and citizens,” the village police chief said.

He says no village police officers have made any threat of arrest stemming from an alleged New York State on PAUSE Order violation.

“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,” Love said in his statement.

Mayor Tim Currier said he doesn’t think the Massena Emergency Operations Center was able to effectively communicate public health concerns to the church.

“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,” Currier said in a written statement. “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. With better communication, this issue was avoidable,” Currier said.

He believes municipal officials have done all they can to link the religious community to Massena’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am very proud that we have worked closely with our faith-based community every step of the way during this crisis. That is demonstrated by the fact that we have a pastor that sits on our EOC management team. Additionally, the spiritual leaders answer the Massena Wellness line,” Currier said.

According to a news report from WKBW 7ABC in Buffalo, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce on Thursday, May 21 that drive-in religious services, or those with 10 or fewer people, will be allowed.

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