On Sunday, the pastor of Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, Calif., was greeted by several police officers in the parking lot about an hour before he intended to hold an in-person service despite coronavirus restrictions.
Pastor Jon Duncan, whose small evangelical church leases space in Bethel Open Bible Church, arrived Sunday morning, Palm Sunday, to find that Bethel, which stopped having in-person services on March 15, had changed the locks on the building to prevent his congregants from entering, Lodi Police Lt. Michael Manetti told The Times.
Duncan had continued to hold in-person services for Cross Culture Christian Center amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re going to meet as often as we can meet, and we do believe that this right is protected by the 1st Amendment and should be considered essential,” Duncan said in an interview with KTXL-TV last week.
Duncan told the news station that the church had implemented safety measures and encouraged social distancing.
“We are not a church that takes the virus lightly nor do we have in our minds to act reckless,” Duncan said. “We believe that precautions need to be taken.”
On March 25, Lodi police officers came to one of Duncan’s Wednesday services and told the pastor about county and state orders against public meetings.
“It was strictly educational,” Manetti said.
The church retained a lawyer from the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy, a conservative Christian nonprofit law center.
On March 27, attorney Dean R. Broyles sent a six-page cease-and-desist letter to the City of Lodi, saying officers had “disrupted a peaceful and lawful worship service.” He told the city and its law enforcement officers to respect the church’s 1st Amendment rights.
“The church intends to meet this Sunday, and all future Wednesdays and Sundays in the future,” the letter said.
But out of “genuine love and concern for their neighbor, in light of COVID-19” the church has implemented social-distancing measures, called for regular hand-washing and asked the “elderly, sick or immune compromised to stay at home.”
On Friday, police officers had posted a notice from interim San Joaquin County Public Health Officer Maggie Park on the church building.
The letter, addressed to Pastor Michael Allison of Bethel Open Bible Church, said Cross Culture Christian Church was continuing to use the Ham Lane facility and ordered it and its parking lot closed. Violation of the emergency order, the letter said, was a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine or imprisonment.
Several police officers including Manetti arrived Sunday morning to make sure Duncan’s church did not meet, Manetti said. “Bethel Open Bible Church had changed the locks on the doors in response to this,” Manetti said.
Officers spoke to Duncan on the sidewalk about an hour before his service was to begin. The discussion “was fairly cordial,” and officers gave him a copy of the county order, Manetti said.
As officers watched, more than a dozen cars tried to pull into the parking lot and were directed to drive around the corner.
Duncan spoke briefly with the people in each car and gave them printed copies of Scripture, Manetti said.
“We understand people’s desire to practice their faith,” Manetti said. “But at church, generally people are closer to one another … shaking hands and singing.
“It’s for everyone’s welfare,” Manetti added. “We have to protect the public.”
In an interview with The Times on Sunday evening, Broyles, the attorney for Cross Culture Christian Center, said Duncan was unaware before Sunday morning that the locks had been changed by Bethel Open Bible Church.
“The landlord did not inform my client that they were going to lock them out of the premises,” Broyles said. “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 he plans to send a letter Monday to Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Joaquin County officials asking that they follow the lead of other states and declare houses of worship as essential services that are exempted from stay-at-home orders.
He said he is also planning a federal civil rights lawsuit “based on the fact that the governor and the county are violating my client’s 1st Amendment rights.”
“The right to peaceably assemble, the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech are unalienable rights found in the 1st Amendment,” he said. “Constitutional rights are not suspended by a virus.”
Broyles said, “People have been trying to pit health against faith,” saying you have to choose one or the other. He called that a “false choice,” and said the Lodi church was operating safely, implementing social-distancing measures and asking elderly and sick congregants to stay home and watch the service on Facebook Live.
However, he said, the church in recent days took down its Facebook profile because it was getting inundated with “hate speech.”
As of Sunday, he said, no congregants had fallen sick. The church, he said, is trying to figure out how to proceed regarding future services.
In an email to The Times on Sunday, Allison, the lead pastor of Bethel Open Bible Church, said his congregation disagreed with Cross Culture Christian Center’s decision to continue meeting.
“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,” Allison wrote.
“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.”
Rob McCoy, pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel, submitted his resignation in a letter Saturday night, saying he planned to violate orders that deem churches nonessential.
“As an elected official I am in conflict and thus must tender my resignation from the council,” he wrote in the letter obtained by The Times. “I have no desire to put our community at risk and will not. … However this is portrayed, please know I am obligated to do this.”