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A central California pastor is facing legal jeopardy for allegedly “hiding” congregants attending an Easter Sunday church service in violation of the state’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
The local sheriff insists that he isn’t interfering with anyone’s civil rights or the ability to worship, and that police involvement was merely to keep people safe.
Approximately Six Merced County Sheriff’s deputies converged on the church in full tactical gear after receiving a tip about potential coronavirus social distancing violations.
Pastor Fernando Aguas has denied that anyone was hiding at Iglesia De Jesus Cristo Palabra and that there were kids all over the place. “We just had people park in back because we didn’t want problems.”
He maintained that he was under the impression that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rules constituted only a recommendation. He added that the congregants nonetheless had the constitutional right to assemble. He acknowledged that about 40 people were in the church at the time.
Deputies, who the pastor described as “aggressive,” handed Aguas a citation that could result in a $1,000 fine along with the potential for up to six months behind bars, assuming a court rules against him. He is due in court in August.
Freedom of religion is protected under Article 1, Section 4, of the California constitution and the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Both founding documents also protect the right to peacefully assemble.
“Aguas said there was plenty of room in the church, and so there was ample spacing between those who were praying,” KTVU reported, although not everyone was wearing a mask.
Sheriff Vernon Warnke claimed that the service potentially put the health of the entire congregation at risk given that one person could potentially infect the larger group. He insisted that deputies were not engaging in any civil rights violations in terms of infringing on freedom of speech or religion.
“I’m just telling you where you can’t go to do it, and that’s based upon this health directive.” Sheriff Warnke declared.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Zoom online streaming platform has become a popular substitute for in-person religious services for all faiths.
Pastor Aguas has closed his church doors for the time being and has no plans to take services online, however.
Some elected officials around the country have tried to prevent people from worshipping in person during the epidemic, even to the point of trying to rule out drive-in services that presumably comply with social distancing requirements.
Three churches in southern California have taken Newsom to court to challenge the state restrictions.
Said First-Amendment attorney Harmeet K. Dhillion, a pundit familiar to Fox News Channel viewers who is representing the plaintiffs, “If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions.”
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