A pastor who insisted his church would continue to meet despite shelter-in-place orders meant to protect the public against furthering the spread of coronavirus was shut down by a higher power — the church’s landlord.
Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, California received multiple warnings to cease meeting in person, in accordance to Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order that all non-essential businesses be shut down, including a written notice sent by the San Joaquin County Health Department last week.
Instead of switching to online services as many churches across the nation are doing, Cross Culture’s pastor, Jon Duncan, went public with his defiance.
“We are going to meet as often as we can meet and we do believe that this right is protected by the First Amendment and should be considered essential,” Duncan told FOX40 the week before Palm Sunday.
But when Sunday rolled around, Duncan and his congregation discovered that Bethel Open Bible Church, who leases space to Cross Culture, had changed all the locks on the building to prevent them from meeting.
Police officers were present to enforce the decision, which came after Bethel was threatened with a misdemeanor offense if they continued to allow their facilities to be used.
“We understand people’s desire to practice their faith,” Lodi Police Lt. Michael Manette told The LA Times. “But at church, generally people are closer to one another… It’s for everyone’s welfare. We have to protect the public.”
The church had previously retained a lawyer to fight what they say is a violation of their rights.
Attorney Dean Broyles sent a cease-and-desist letter to the City of Lodi before all of this went down, claiming that ordering them to stop meeting was against the First Amendment.
“The right to peaceably assemble, the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech are unalienable rights found in the First Amendment,” he said. “Constitutional rights are not suspended by a virus.”
Broyles also claimed “people have been trying to pit health against faith,” and made clear his intention to write to Gov. Newsom to request California exempt churches from the stay-at-home orders, as some other states have chosen to do.
But a lot of folks are frustrated that some churches are insisting on continuing to meet, and that some states are allowing it.
With so many people following guidelines, staying home and practicing social distancing when it’s absolutely necessary to go out, that others are insisting on meeting in large groups in small spaces feels like a defiance of the concentrated effort to curb the COVID-19 outbreak.
Cross Culture may have been halted in their tracks for now, but too many other churches continue to meet. Unfortunately, it may take a local outbreak for some to realize they can exercise those First Amendment rights at home just as effectively.