Calif. prosecutor threatens church with closure, jail sentences for COVID-19 order violation

Wikimedia Commons/Runner1928
Wikimedia Commons/Runner1928

A prosecutor warned the pastor of a church in California that he, church staff and attendees could face jail time if they continue to defy government COVID-19 orders by holding and attending in-person worship services. 

Pastor Ché Ahn of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena was sent a letter, dated last Thursday, from Chief Pasadena Assistant Prosecutor Michael P. Dowd, warning him of the consequences should his church continue to defy Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders prohibiting in-person worship in counties on the state’s watchlist. 

Dowd told Ahn, who is also an author and international chancellor of Wagner University, that his office was informed that Harvest Rock Church is not operating in compliance with the governor’s orders nor the orders of the city’s health officer and how it held indoor services attended by anywhere from 50 to 100 people or more. 

Some attendees of the church and church staff “were not complying with the relevant government orders concerning social distancing or the wearing of protective masks.”

“This letter is to remind you that violations of these Orders are criminal in nature,” the state attorney explained. “Each day in violation is a separate violation and carries with it a potential punishment of up to one year in jail and a fine for each violation.”

He argued that cooperation with government orders was not “discretionary” but “mandatory.” 

“Any violations in the future will subject your Church, owners, administrators, operators, staff, and parishioners to the above-mentioned criminal penalties as well as the potential closure of your Church.” 

The letter was shared publicly by Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal nonprofit devoted to protecting the First Amendment. The organization is representing Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministries, a nonprofit corporation with 162 member churches statewide and over 65,000 affiliates worldwide, in its legal challenge against the government’s restrictions on gatherings. 

Last month, the ministries filed a lawsuit and claimed that in addition to indoor worship services, Newsom’s executive order effectively bars church members from hosting Bible studies and other fellowship meetings at their homes.  

According to a legal complaint, Harvest Rock Church has many “Life Groups” that meet at the homes of church members for worship and Bible study. The ministries are seeking an injunction that would allow fellowship gatherings at people’s homes and end orders restricting the ability to hold in-person worship services.

Last Monday, Harvest Rock Church received a cease-and-desist letter from Pasadena’s code compliance office ordering the church to stop holding in-person worship services. 

“The City of Pasadena, like Gov. Gavin Newsom, encourages thousands of people to gather for mass protests, but now consider in-person worship to be a criminal offense,” Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement.  

“These actions of the City of Pasadena and Gov. Gavin Newsom are akin to repressive foreign regimes, not America where the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. The First Amendment erects a wall which the state may not breach to close churches and incarcerate pastors and parishioners.” 

Harvest Rock Church asks that attendees abide by the church’s guidelines for safe attendance during the pandemic. 

The church asks those who are high risk and those who live with people who are high risk to stay home and watch online. Meanwhile, the church also encourages families with children and those who experience symptoms such as cough, fever, sore throat and difficulty breathing to watch online. 

Attendees are asked to wear a mask “when entering and exiting the auditorium” and practice social distancing “while entering, exiting and while on-site.”

The governor’s order provides added restrictions on in-person gatherings in as many as 42 counties throughout the state that are included in the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list. 

According to Liberty Counsel, the added restrictions apply to about 80% of the state’s population. In counties not included on the state’s coronavirus monitoring list, limited in-person worship is allowed but with no singing or chanting. At least three churches have filed a lawsuit against the statewide ban on singing in church. 

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