A California church, which planned to hold Palm Sunday services at its rented sanctuary despite a state-mandated stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, was thwarted when its landlord—another church—changed the locks to prevent entry.
The landlord, Bethel Open Bible Church, took action after the San Joaquin County Public Health Officer posted a notice at the house of worship on April 3 ordering the facility and parking lot be closed. The letter to Pastor Michael Allison of Bethel Open Bible Church noted that its tenant, Cross Culture Christian Center, was continuing to meet despite the emergency order. Doing so, the letter warned, was a misdemeanor that could bring a fine or imprisonment. Bethel Open Bible Church, located in California’s Central Valley, had already heeded the emergency order on March 15 when it stopped holding its own 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,” Allison told the Los Angeles Times.
“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.”
When Pastor Jon Duncan of Cross Culture Christian Center and his members arrived on Palm Sunday, Lodi police, unaware the locks had been changed, were waiting. It was their second contact with Cross Culture in as many weeks. Officers from the department were first dispatched to the evangelical church on March 25, when they interrupted a Wednesday night gathering to inform them about the emergency order forbidding public gatherings. They were urged to respect the order.
Duncan was not swayed and the 30-member congregation continued to meet.
“We’re 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 KTXL-TV in an interview last week.
The pastor added they had implemented social distancing guidelines by spacing out seating, providing hand sanitation stations and urging sick and vulnerable members to stay home.
"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."
After the initial encounter with police, Cross Culture hired Dean Broyles of the National Center for Law & Policy, a Southern California nonprofit law firm that specializes in religious freedom cases. Broyles promptly sent a cease-and-desist letter to the City of Lodi and its police department, saying a ban of church gatherings was unconstitutional.
“The state simply does not have the jurisdiction to unilaterally shut down all church services indefinitely as Governor Gavin Newsome has done,” Broyles wrote in a statement.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Sunday night, Broyles said he was preparing to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of his client.
“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.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Christin Lola
Lori Arnold is a national award-winning journalist whose experience includes 16 years at a daily community newspaper in San Diego and 16 years as writer-editor for the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and is a member of the Evangelical Press Association.