Church vs. coronavirus: California pastor says stay-at-home orders violate freedom of religion

The pastor of a church in central California is holding services and has no plans to stop, despite a stay-at-home order issued by the governor and the fact that other religious leaders have gotten arrested for doing the same.

That's also despite a report in the Sacramento Bee that nearly one third of Sacramento County’s coronavirus cases are connected to churches, which has prompted alarmed county officials to issue a special plea for congregations to stop holding services and prayer groups as Easter is approaching next weekend. 

None of that is of major concern to Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, Calif., which drew about 30 worshippers on Sunday.

And Pastor Jon Duncan is unapologetic about that, despite legal orders that people must not congregate and stay at least six feet from each other in order to slow the tide of coronavirus claiming lives and hospitalizing people indiscriminately across the globe. 

"Gathering in person is essential to the Christian faith," he said in an interview. The church has hand washing stations, he said, and he called his seating arrangments "spaced out."

"We are going to meet as often as we can meet," he said. "We believe that this right is protected by the First amendment and should be considered essential."

Lodi police gave the church a warning and threatened to shut it down if the services continue. The church's lawyer countered, arguing to the city that the church's religious freedom had been violated.

This is not the only coronavirus-vs.-church battle of its kind being waged.

Even here in the Bay Area, at least one church held a service over the weekend.

Cheri McCaffrey told KTVU that the Westside Baptist Church, the "Friendliest Church in Town," on Inverness Drive in Pacifica held services on Sunday. Her husband spotted nearly a dozen cars in the parking lot. 

Then, she said two women from the Baptist congregation came to her door to hand out literature.

She said she did not open up and cleaned up after they left.

It was "very unsettling," she said, "as they are not listening to the shelter in place and are gathering in groups."

A call to the pastor there was not immediately returned. 

The matter even got the attention of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. When a reporter asked him about this issue, citing a church in Rancho Cordova near Sacramento, where congregants are meeting in people's homes, he answered: "It is essential that we practice physical distancing everywhere."

Newsom didn't know the details of the particular case, but he said that he wanted social pressure to convince the church to stop meeting as a group. And only if need be, Newsom said, would "additional enforcement" be necessary. 

In Pennsylvania, evangelist Jonathan Shuttlesworth said he will hold a massive service on Easter in protest of coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

"We’re gonna hold an outdoor Easter blowout service. Not online. A national gathering. You come from all over, like Woodstock. And we’re gonna gather and lift up Jesus Christ," Shuttlesworth said.

A pastor of a Lousiana megachurch was also arrested on misdemeanor charges for holding Sunday services for hundreds of followers in the face of a state-wide coronavirus large gathering ban.

And in Tampa Bay, police arested Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, for holding two church services on Sunday — each filled with hundreds of parishioners.

On Wednesday, he said he'll cancel services for the safety of his congregation. 

"I actually have no choice at this juncture but to shut the church down this Sunday. No service at The River this Sunday," Howard-Browne said in a video. "I’m not caving. I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from the tyrannical government."

Not all religious leaders have taken this approach.

Most places around the country have realized that they are doing more good in the world by adhering to social distancing orders. Services are being streamed online and rabbis, priests and imams are counseling their flocks over Zoom and Facetime. 

After Howard-Browne was arrested,  the state attorney for Florida's 13th Judicial Circuit even quoted a Bible verse to show that religion does indeed mandate putting the community's health above all. 

“I’d remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which said there’s no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself,” Andrew Warren said. “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez 

Fox 13 nand Fox 40 contributed to this report.