Christians looking forward to the Palm Sunday service at the Cross Culture Christian Church in Lodi, California, encountered an unexpected surprise last weekend: The landlord of the church had locked them out.
According to The San Francisco Bay Area’s Fox 2, Pastor Jon Duncan arrived at the church on Sunday to find that he and a group of congregants were barred from entering after Bethel Open Bible Church, the church’s landlord, changed the locks.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Pastor Jon Duncan leases space inside the Bethel Open Bible Church, and was planning to continue holding services through the coronavirus outbreak, despite the fact that the host church cancelled services in the middle of last month.
Dean Broyles, a lawyer for Cross Culture Christian Church, told the LA Times in an interview that Bethel Open Bible Church was violating the terms of the lease.
“The landlord did not inform my client that they were going to lock them out of the premises,” Broyles told the news agency. “They don’t have the right to do that unless they go to an eviction procedure, and the governor has a moratorium on evictions right now.”
In a letter obtained by Fox News, the San Joaquin County Office of Public Health warned the landlord that Pastor Duncan couldn’t continue to hold services on their property during the California stay-at-home order.
The public health office also warned the landlord that they could face “civil and administrative penalties” if the tenant continued to hold services, reads the letter.
According to Fox News, Pastor Duncan received a visit from police last week after they were tipped off that the pastor was still holding services on Wednesday and Sunday despite the state’s stay-at-home order.
“We hold truly to the belief that the church should be meeting as much as possible,” said Duncan, reports the news agency. “The amount of room I would say our situating of our church service was probably going to guarantee less contact than you would have if you were going to Walmart or Safeway, CVS or Costco.”
“We are not a church that takes the virus lightly nor do we have in our minds to act reckless,” said Duncan. “We believe that precautions need to be taken.”
The situation has unfolded as tensions between local governments and religious institutions, which have been deemed essential or non-essential depending on the municipality and state, spur around the nation.
As The Daily Wire previously reported, Pastor Howard-Browne of The River At Tampa Bay Church in Florida was recently arrested for unlawful assembly and violation of a public health order after police alleged that his church defied social-distancing guidelines at a service the day before.
In a press conference, State Attorney Andrew Warren accused the pastor of “hiding behind the First Amendment” and flouting social distancing guidelines.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment,” said Warren. “One, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid. Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”
The pastor was released from custody an hour later. The Daily Beast reports that the pastor has since shut down his services, saying that it was his duty to protect the church from a “tyrannical government.”