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Updated 8:56 a.m., July 20–
By Mike Hazlip– Churches in Citrus Heights and across California are responding in different ways to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest health order which includes a ban on indoor worship services to limit the spread of COVID-19.
In a social media video posted Friday, that has since been made private, Pastor Kyle Conley of Pioneer Baptist Church in Citrus Heights said he will continue to hold indoor services, despite the governor’s order.
“There are certain inalienable rights that we have, that do not change with time, circumstances, or events,” Conley said in his three-minute announcement. “Our governments did not give us these rights and they cannot take them away.”
“…I have not given my consent to this governor, or any government, to tell me when, where and how to worship,” said Conley. “This right is sacred, and unalterable.”
He went on to say he encourages his congregation to be good citizens, and will give his compliance in other areas of the law. However, “when it comes to the worship of my God,” he said, “I have not, and I will not give it.”
Conley did not disregard COVID-19 concerns in his message, calling it a “serious issue.” The church has posted guidelines for worship, requiring physical distancing, prohibiting physical contact, and advising those with COVID-19 symptoms or those who have been around others with symptoms to stay home. The guidelines also call for “respect[ing] individual freedom regarding masks” and encouraging use of the churches’ live-stream video option from home.
Conley joins a growing number of California pastors who argue the state is violating their right to worship. Churches cite the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
A federal lawsuit filed July 15, just two days after the governor’s announcement, lists Calvary Chapel of Ukiah, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg, and River of Life Church as plaintiffs seeking to block the governor’s order.
The U.S. Supreme Court previously issued a 5-4 decision in May, rejecting another California congregation’s claim that a prior order restricting worship services to 100 people or 25% of capacity was an “indisputably clear” violation of the First Amendment. The court cited prior rulings in favor of broad governmental powers to protect public health and noted more severe restrictions had been imposed on “comparable secular gatherings” like sports, concerts and theaters.
The Sacramento Bee reported Wednesday that additional church leaders throughout the state have also expressed misgivings about Newsom’s orders concerning churches. Pastor Greg Fairrington of Destiny Christian Church said his church will also be meeting in person on Sunday, calling the decision a “mandate” to obey God.
Still other churches in the area are complying with the governor’s orders. Pastor Bob Yule of Celtic Cross Church in Citrus Heights announced their services would be live-streamed.
“Our elders, out of an abundance of caution, are very concerned about all the things happening in our county, in our area,” Yule said in a video posted Thursday. “Out of that concern, I wanted to make this video available to let you know that we are suspending our outdoor services at this time.”
The senior pastor added he believes suspending in-person services is in the best interest of the congregation and will set a good example of citizenship. “We want to protect all people,” Yule said.
Advent Lutheran Church on San Juan Avenue announced it would be holding a modified outdoor service, with the option of live-streaming from home.
The church said its outdoor service would include “temperature check, one-way routes for walking, mandatory face coverings, seating at indicated spaces at least 6ft apart, no physical sharing of Christ’s peace, no collection plate, no physical touch, and communion with pre-packaged elements.”
Other area churches could not be reached for comment by press time on Saturday.
The California Department of Public Health and OSHA issued guidelines for places of worship in an initial document dated July 6. The document, aimed at workplace safety, said places of worship must “discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities,” and also reaffirmed the limit on indoor attendance to “25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.”
The governor later announced additional orders covering religious services in a press conference on July 13, citing an increase in infection rates across the state. The new orders entirely prohibit many indoor activities, including worship services, in the 30 counties on the state’s monitoring list, which includes Sacramento County.
Other states, like Texas and Florida, have specifically exempted worship services from stay-at-home orders, deeming them to be “essential services” along with grocery stores and gas stations. According to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center, roughly one-third of states have not imposed restrictions on religious services during the pandemic, while the majority have imposed restrictions on the size of gatherings — including religious services — or banned services all together.
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