Calif. pastors face potential $1K fines, jail time for holding Easter services

A sign alerts customers that a business in Queens, which has one of the highest infection rates of coronavirus in the nation, is closed on April 03, 2020 in New York City.
A sign alerts customers that a business in Queens, which has one of the highest infection rates of coronavirus in the nation, is closed on April 03, 2020 in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Pastors in California have received citations for holding services on Easter in defiance of social distancing orders enacted to combat the spread of novel coronavirus. They could face the possibility of being fined hundreds of dollars or serving months in jail. 

As some churches continue to hold in-person worship services despite orders from state and local governments nationwide to stay home, more local authorities are enforcing stay-at-home orders by cracking down on religious gatherings. 

Bay area pastor Wyndford Williams of All Nations Church of God in Christ in Richmond was given a misdemeanor citation on Monday after holding an Easter service Sunday. 

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The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the citation on Facebook Thursday.

According to the Facebook post, a deputy responded to an anonymous complaint about an “unlawful assembly” at the church building Sunday afternoon. 

“A Deputy responded to the location and saw approximately 40 people inside the church. None of them were wearing a face mask and they did not practice social distancing,” the sheriff’s office explained. 

“The Deputy first spoke to the deacon and asked to speak to the pastor who was in front of the parishioners. The pastor was uncooperative and refused to talk to the Deputy.”

The deputy then left the location and wrote a report. 

On Monday, Williams was issued a citation for violating the state health order. The sheriff’s office confirmed that it filed a case with the district attorney’s office for prosecution.  

Section 120295 of the state’s health and safety code highlights penalties for violations related to the section of the state's health code dealing with infectious diseases and quarantines, which gives the state the ability to "require strict or modified isolation or quarantine for any case of contagious, infectious, or communicable disease."

Violators could be subject to a fine of no less than $50 and nor more than $1,000. Violators could also be subject to imprisonment for a term of not more than 90 days.

"Our focus has been on education of the Health Officer Order and in the vast majority of cases we ask for voluntary compliance and that solves the problem," Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston said in a statement. "This was different. The pastor refused to cooperate and put the lives of dozens of parishioners at risk."

Just over two-hours drive south in Merced County, Pastor Fernando Aguas of the Iglesia De Jesucristo Palabra Miel told KTVU that he was given a citation by a local sheriff’s office after over 40 people attended his church’s Easter service. 

Aguas told the television news outlet that the congregants in the church were maintaining a proper six feet of social distance. However, he said that not everyone was wearing face masks. 

According to the pastor, the citation he received carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. He said he has a court hearing scheduled for August. 

“It wasn't fair what he did," Aguas said of the sheriff. "When he quoted the Constitution, he was wrong. We have the right to assemble." 

Aguas clarified that he thought the rules of the state’s stay-at-home order were only a recommendation and argued that churches should be exempt.

Sheriff Vernon H. Warnke told KTVU that the pastor put his entire congregation in “jeopardy.” 

"By putting them in jeopardy, one person could have showed up, not known they're infected and infected the entire congregation,” the sheriff was quoted as saying. “This congregation now goes out and gets with their family because they think they're OK, and then it continues to go."

The citations against the pastors come as religious gatherings have been linked to large clusters of COVID-19 cases across the globe, including 70 who tested positive linked to a church in Sacramento

In Kansas City, five deaths and 44 cases have been linked to a gathering that took place from March 16 to March 22 at the Miracle Temple Church of God in Christ, according to data from Wyandotte County as reported by KCTV

In Greenville, Mississippi, churchgoers were issued $500 tickets by police for attending a drive-in church service last week in defiance of a mayor’s order banning the services. 

After intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of a church that filed a lawsuit against Mayor Errick D. Simmons’ order, Simmons said Wednesday that he would again allow drive-in services as long as parishioners keep their windows rolled up.  He said those fined would not be forced to pay the fines.

In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church has been given multiple misdemeanor citations for holding services in defiance of Gov. John Bel Edwards' order from March banning gatherings of more than 50 people. 

In late March, Florida Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for violating a state “safer at home” order by holding in-person worship services.

In California, three churches filed a lawsuit against Newsom and local officials claiming that the state’s stay-at-home order violates their right to practice their religion. They are represented by the Center for American Liberty. 

While the state exempts other services like grocery stores and fast-food restaurants by considering them to be "essential" services, the lawsuit argues that the state is barring religious leaders from conducting essential religious services.

“The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services,” attorney Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, CEO of the Center for American Liberty, said in a statement

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