A Lodi church said it welcomes Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Monday announcement that in-person services could be held once again, but his move does not change the fact its religious freedoms were violated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Although we welcome Governor Newsom’s action, our church and places of worship across California have suffered greatly because our leaders chose to marginalize and criminalize faith-based gatherings,” Pastor Jon Duncan said in a media statement released by his attorney Tuesday.
“If we are to remain free, we must never allow this to happen again,” he said.
Duncan’s comment comes after Newsom announced new guidelines for places of worship to resume in-person services, if county public health officials approve.
In addition, attendance at services must be limited to 25% of the building’s capacity or a maximum of 100 people, whichever is lower.
Limitations will remain in place for 21 days, and the California Department of Public Health will work with county public health officials to review the impacts of in-person gatherings.
Dean Broyles, the Escondido attorney representing Duncan and the Cross Culture Christian Center, said moving the ability to reopen places of worship from Stage 3 to Stage 2 of the governor’s Roadmap to Recovery was the right thing to do.
The 100-person limit at services seemed arbitrary, he said, although he and his clients agreed the 25% occupancy limit was temporarily reasonable.
“But the governor’s announcement does not erase the fact that, for more than nine weeks, Governor Gavin Newsom and local officials deliberately chose a coercive course of action that treated faith-based gatherings in a discriminatory manner when compared to similar secular gatherings,” Broyles said. “Cross Culture Christian Center and Pastor Jon Duncan were among the victims of this discrimination which violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.”
Other guidelines suggested by the state include shortening services and lengths of time spent at facilities; discourage staff, congregants and visitors from engaging in handshakes, hugs and similar greetings; and close or restrict common areas such as breakrooms or kitchens where people are likely to gather and interact.
Face coverings are strongly recommended at all times for congregants and staff as well.
San Joaquin County Public Health Services updated its stay-at-home order Tuesday morning, allowing places of worship to operate effective immediately, and are expected to completely implement the guidance issued by state health officials.
However, the new order states COVID-19 infections and death continue at a rate that “necessitate a firm and carefully planned and managed response as the California economy is reopened.”
As of Tuesday evening, there were 771 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county, and 33 deaths, according to www.sjcphs.org.
“Because even people without symptoms can transmit the disease, and because evidence shows the disease is easily spread, public activities can result in preventable transmission of the virus,” the new order states. “While the evidence in San Joaquin County suggests that the individual efforts taken to date are reducing the transmission rate, it is imperative that everyone continues to abide by the social distancing requirements and by the industry guidance published by the State of California.”
Pastor Frank Nolton of New Hope Community Church said following the guidelines set forth by the state and county won’t be difficult, as his congregation averages about 40 people on a Sunday.
Nolton said he was originally planning for members to return for in-person services on June 14, when churches were still scheduled for Stage 3 reopenings.
But with Monday’s announcement, the new reopening date is June 7, he said.
“I’ll make sure everyone knows the guidelines, and I’ll post them on the front door so they can see them when they come in,” he said. “Usually we have coffee and snacks during service, but we won’t be offering those. We probably won’t have bulletins to hand out, and I’ve purchased CDC-approved disinfectant to clean everything. It’s basically common sense measures they’ve outlined.”
Nolton added the church will hold communion for its first Sunday back, stating he and his staff will be looking at ways to perform the ceremony in a manner that meets social distancing guidelines. He said instead of performing communion for several people at once, he might conduct the ceremony individually.
While he has been streaming sermons online for the last two months, Nolton said his congregation is eager to return for services at 330 S. Fairmont St., Lodi.
“I think people are ready to get back,” he said. “It’s part of who we are as Christians that we meet together. The church was Jesus’ idea, and he wanted us to come together for fellowship and teachings.”
Taj Khan, a board member of the California Islamic Center at 12882 Lower Sacramento Road in Lodi, said the center would love to reopen by Friday, since prayer on that day is a major event for the Muslim community.
However, he said it was unclear if the center would be able to incorporate all the governor’s guidelines by that time.
“The board is going to get together and figure out how to meet the requirements the governor wants us to do,” he said. “It’s a long list, and I think we can accomplish (opening Friday), but it requires a lot of work. We’ll have to see.”
One local church that will not be opening in the coming weeks is the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist at 1055 S. Lower Sacramento Road, Lodi.
Rev. Peter Ackerman said the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin County has decided to wait a while before allowing individual churches to hold in-person services again, and is creating its own program to conduct a safe reopening that includes state and county guidelines.
“While we all would like to reopen, we don’t want to rush in,” Ackerman said. “We take very seriously our idea of ‘caring for the other,’ whether it’s someone who is 65 and older, or someone with existing health conditions. Anytime we get together, there is the possibility someone could infect someone else, and we don’t want to take that risk.”
Ackerman said the diocese may announce its reopening plan by mid-June.
Newsom’s decision comes days after a federal appeal court upheld the state’s ban on in-person services, as well as days after President Donald Trump urged governors in every state to reopen places of worship. Trump also warned he would override governors if they do not comply with his request.
Robert Tyler, the Southern California attorney representing some 1,500 members of the clergy who planned to reopen their church on May 31, with or without approval from the state, said in a media release that Newsom’s limitations still discriminate against places of worship.
“Restaurants, for example, have no stated occupancy limitation but simply require that guests at tables be separated by six feet,” he said. “Additionally, large stores continue operating without being limited in their occupancy from their normal levels. While many churches will have no problem complying with the 100-person limit, some of our clients have churches that seat 2,500 people and more. Limiting places of worship to 100 people is arbitrary, unreasonable and unconstitutional.”
Tyler said his firm’s clients are still planning to hold services on May 31, and will not limit congregations to 100 people.
“We encourage the Governor to reconsider this unnecessarily low limitation on occupancy,” he said. “Meanwhile, we will continue to pursue our legal claims in court in order to prevent future authorities from stripping First Amendment liberties from places of worship.”