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California

Ventura County faith leaders demand officials allow socially distant gatherings amid coronavirus shutdown

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People gather in their cars in a parking lot in Santa Ana to worship at a drive-in Easter service.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Faith leaders in Ventura County are arguing that a stay-at-home order violates their 1st Amendment rights, and have asked county officials to revise portions of the rule to allow them to keep holding religious gatherings while following safety guidelines.

The clergymen — Rob McCoy, a pastor at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park, and Michael Barclay, a rabbi at Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village — on Thursday expressed the “wish to exercise their religious freedom in a manner that respects the current social distancing restrictions and the health and safety of the community,” according to the demand letter sent to the county.

Should the county fail to accommodate the request, attorneys for the clergymen said, they are prepared to file a lawsuit and seek an injunction against the county order, which took effect in March.

Ventura County’s “Stay Well at Home” order bans “all gatherings, no matter the size, outside of places of residences” with limited exceptions. Church services are included in the ban. The order allows gatherings of two or more people as needed for essential business or governmental functions, as well as those of up to 10 people at graveside funeral services.

Faith-based organizations also are permitted to livestream services with their members as long as there are no more than seven people participating in the gathering.

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Ventura County supervisors did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The demand comes as three Southern California churches hoping to keep their doors open during the coronavirus outbreak sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials, arguing that social distancing orders violate the constitutional right to freedom of religion and assembly.

The U.S. Constitution is being tested in unprecedented ways, with religious leaders from Mississippi to Kentucky to San Diego County suing their governments, asserting that they are being treated differently from businesses that can remain open, such as supermarkets and liquor stores.

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County health officials in Ventura had struck a hopeful tone this week, saying that efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus were working even as the number of people testing positive continued to climb.

The county has reported a total of 396 coronavirus infections. The number includes 198 people who recovered, 77 who were hospitalized and 188 cases still under quarantine.

The demand letter acknowledged the efforts county officials have made to “protect the public health, safety and welfare during this pandemic.” The religious leaders, the demand said, support “reasonable measures” to help flatten the curve and take seriously their responsibility to do so.

“Ultimately, we believe religious practices to be as essential [as] any grocery store,” the letter said.

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Attorneys said that the order in effect bars McCoy from holding any in-person religious service with more than one person.

McCoy’s church has a “sincerely held religious belief that involves the sacrament of taking Communion on the first Sunday of every month,” the demand letter said.

Robert Tyler, an attorney representing McCoy and Barclay, said the pastor held a modified Palm Sunday Communion service at his church earlier this month.

The church, which Tyler said seats about 400 people, requested that parishioners line up six feet apart. Only 10 people were allowed in at a time, he said, and congregants left the church through a separate door. Each chair used for Communion was sprayed with Lysol after the worshiper left, he said.

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“That was a violation of the order,” Tyler said. “Yet the order allows individuals to drive through Starbucks as an essential business. Individuals can go to grocery stores, liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries, and go and touch things and pick up things and put them back on the shelf. This is far more sanitary than anything you’d see at any grocery store.”

The pastor intends to open his church for Communion on the first Sunday of May. McCoy plans to allow 10 congregants at a time, attorneys said, and the church will comply with all CDC guidelines as well as social distancing rules that essential businesses are required to follow.

McCoy also plans to start holding drive-in style services, beginning Sunday at Godspeak Calvary Chapel — a practice that has popped up in recent weeks in Orange County and across the country.

Likewise, Tyler said, Rabbi Barclay has been barred from holding any kind of Saturday morning Torah service, including a streaming service, because “under Jewish religious obligations, a Torah service requires a quorum of 10 Jewish adults [a minyan] physically present in the synagogue to carry out the service.”

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Many other religious gatherings also require 10 Jewish adults, he said, including Bar Mitzvahs and Shiva minyans. The rabbi wants to be able to hold such gatherings while still following CDC and social distancing guidelines, Tyler said.

The pastor and rabbi discussed the ban and the importance of safely gathering to practice their faith in a “fireside chat” posted on YouTube last week.

“We still need to stay in our stream,” Barclay said. “I would rather be in a sanctuary that holds 250 people with family units 20 feet apart, having 40 or 50 people in that room. I would much rather be that, a room that’s been sanitized according to CDC standards, and Purell and latex and everything else, than Costco.”


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