Landlord changes locks on California church after pastor said he'd continue to hold services

Members of a central California church found themselves locked out of the building after the pastor originally kept his doors open, saying the shelter-in-place orders violated his freedom to assemble.

But within the past week, the landlord of the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, Calif. changed the locks, so congregants couldn't enter the building for Palm Sunday services. The landlord is Bethel Open Bible Church.

The San Joaquin County Health Department had ordered the church to shut down last week. 

A small gathering of congregants showed up Sunday; they had been poised to defy the shelter-in-place order. And they weren't pleased with the turn of events. 

"I'm not thrilled in general with the restriction on religious liberties," said Jeremy Duncan, the pastor's brother. "Especially during what is Christian's most holy week." 

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

His brother, Pastor Jon Duncan, had continued to hold in-person services despite the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re going to meet as often as we can meet, and we do believe that this right is protected by the 1st Amendment and should be considered essential,” Duncan said in an interview with Fox 40 last week.

On March 25, Lodi police officers came to one of Duncan’s Wednesday services and told the pastor about county and state orders against public meetings, the LA Times reported

The church retained a lawyer from the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy, a conservative Christian nonprofit law center.

An attorney there told the Times he plans to send a letter Monday to Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Joaquin County officials asking that they follow the lead of other states and declare houses of worship as essential services that are exempted from stay-at-home orders.

He said he is also planning a federal civil rights lawsuit “based on the fact that the governor and the county are violating my client’s 1st Amendment rights.”

While most houses of worship are helping their congregants online or offering drive-thru confessions, there have been some churches who have been holding in-person services nationwide. Some of those pastors in Florida and Louisiana have even been arrested. 

Pastor Doug Bird of Abundant Life Fellowship Church in Roseville chose not to be arrested. He told the members in attendance, and those watching on a live stream, that the church would be meeting virtually after Sunday, Fox 40 reported. 

In-person church services have been held in the Bay Area, too. 

Cheri McCaffrey told KTVU that the Westside Baptist Church, the "Friendliest Church in Town," on Inverness Drive in Pacifica held services earlier this month, and she was visited by two members trying to drop off brochures at her home. 

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

Several calls to the pastor there were not immediately returned. 

However, McCaffrey said perhaps the pastor had gotten the message.

She walked by this Sunday, and no one was at the church. 

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

Fox 40 contributed to this report.