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A pastor in California has been slapped with a $1,000 fine and faces possible jail time for hosting Easter services in defiance of the state’s stay-at-home order, and for allegedly hiding dozens of congregants from the police.
“According to the Merced County Sheriff, a tip came in regarding what they saw happening at Iglesia De Jesus Cristo Palabra Miel on Weaver Avenue: Dozens of people were inside the church, with the doors locked, and their cars parked out of view,” KTVU reported.
Sheriff Vernon H. Warnke told reporters that Pastor Fernando Aguas put his congregation and people’s health in jeopardy.
“He put his entire congregation in jeopardy,” Warnke said. “By putting them in jeopardy, one person could have showed up, not known they’re infected and infected the entire congregation. This congregation now goes out and gets with their family because they think they’re okay, and then it continues to go.”
Prior to Easter, Warnke said in a Facebook post that as much as he would love to enjoy church on the holiest day of the year, he ultimately reminded people to stay safe at home.
Pastor Aguas has claimed the sheriff unjustly thwarted his “right to assemble,” believing that the rules were only a recommendation that exempted churches anyway.
“It wasn’t fair what he did,” Aguas said. “When he quoted the Constitution, he was wrong. We have the right to assemble.”
“We weren’t hiding,” he added. “There were kids running around everywhere. We just had people park in back because we didn’t want problems.”
About 40 deputies in tactical gear showed up to the church on Sunday, according to Aguas, who described it as being “aggressive.” Though Aguas said the people were keeping social distance, he acknowledged not everyone was wearing a mask. He was handed a $1,000 citation with a court date in August.
As to the charge that Aguas had his First Amendment rights violated, Sheriff Warnke said that the pastor was not having his speech limited. “You still have freedom of speech, you still have freedom of religion, you’re just gonna have to do it a different way,” he said. “I’m not telling you you can’t worship, I’m just telling you where you can’t go to do it, and that’s based upon this health directive.”
Attorney General William Barr said last Saturday that the DOJ will be monitoring state and local governments for potential discrimination against religious services.
“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!” Barr spokeswoman Kerry Kupec said in a statement.
It is not clear at this time if Aguas and his congregation were unfairly singled out by authorities.
This past weekend, Virginia pastor Bishop G.O. Glenn, who held church services despite the lockdown order in his state, died of coronavirus. As noted by the New York Post, Glenn held a packed church service on March 22, days after the state called for social distancing and to diminish public gatherings to no more than 10 people. It did not become an official stay-at-home order until March 23.
Speaking before his congregation, Glenn famously said, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that.” As people clapped, Glenn then said, “people are healed” in his church.