A California pastor who has continued to hold in-person services despite stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus outbreak was met by police in the parking lot of the church building Sunday.
Pastor Jon Duncan, of the evangelical Cross Culture Christian Center (CCCC) in Lodi, leases space in the Bethel Open Bible Church for his services. Upon arriving for Palm Sunday services, Duncan found the Bethel church had changed the locks on the building to block him and his congregation from holding their service.
In an interview with KTXL News Wednesday, Duncan said, “We hold truly to the belief that the church should be meeting as much as possible”:
The church, the assembly of God is the people of God gathering together. Regularly gathering together for the teaching of God’s word, praying, worship, baptism, communion and fellowship.
The pastor said his congregation has instituted safety measures during the current pandemic, including hand-washing stations and increased spacing among congregants.
“We are not a church that takes the virus lightly, nor do we have in our minds to act reckless,” Duncan said in the interview. “We believe that precautions need to be taken.”
Duncan, who holds services for as many as 30 individuals on Sundays, said Lodi police issued a verbal warning to him on Wednesday, March 25, regarding the stay-at-home order by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).
Lodi Police Lt. Michael Manetti told the Los Angeles Times officers went to Duncan’s service on March 25 to inform him about the ban against public meetings during the health emergency.
“It was strictly educational,” said Manetti.
Duncan, however, said police officers warned him of further action if he persisted in holding church services.
The Times reported that, on Friday, officers posted a letter addressed to Pastor Michael Allison of the Bethel church from interim San Joaquin County Public Health Office Maggie Park. The notice ordered the church building and parking lot closed and informed Allison violation of the order was a misdemeanor offense that could result in a fine or imprisonment.
“The choice ultimately belongs to the church of when you can meet, not the state,” Dean Broyles, Duncan’s church’s attorney, told FOX40, adding he sent the City of Lodi and its police department a cease and desist letter.
“We simply believe that constitutional rights are not suspended by a virus,” Broyles, the president of the National Center for Law and Policy, said.
He also told the Times regarding the Bethel church:
The landlord did not inform my client that they were going to lock them out of the premises. They don’t have the right to do that unless they go to an eviction procedure, and the governor has a moratorium on evictions right now.
“We view locking them out as a breach of the lease and a violation of the law,” Broyles said, adding that he planned to write to Newsom and San Joaquin County authorities Monday, requesting they count themselves among other officials who are declaring faith services as “essential services” during the coronavirus crisis.
However, Allison, the Bethel church’s pastor, told the Times his congregation disagreed with Duncan’s decision to continue church services:
It is our hope that others in our community, whether of a faith background or not would continue to follow the Governor’s orders and that of the California State Public Health Officer.
When the Public Health Officer issued an ‘Order Prohibiting Public Assembly’ we immediately took action to lock the building so that it would not be available for any public assembly … At this time, we don’t anticipate CCCC re-entering our building.
Broyles said, nevertheless, “People have been trying to pit health against faith,” and characterized that as a “false choice.”
The attorney added Duncan’s church was following social-distancing procedures and asking elderly and sick parishioners to remain at home.