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California Pastor Flouts Stay-at-Home Order, Says It’s His First Amendment Right to Do So

You can add another pastor in America to the growing list of religious community leaders who claim their First Amendment rights trump state stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pastor Jon Duncan of the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi said his congregation will keep congregating in person because Christian worship is meant to happen that way. He cited the First Amendment.

RELATED: Megachurch Pastor Arrested For Holding Church Services Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

“Gathering in person is essential to the Christian faith,” Duncan told KTVU. “We are going to meet as often as we can meet. We believe that this right is protected by the First amendment and should be considered essential.”

Duncan noted that the church has added hand washing stations and is social distancing congregants spacing out seats. As recently as Sunday, roughly 30 churchgoers showed up. The church has been warned by the government that it will be shut down if it continues to defy pandemic orders, but the church maintains that it is an essential service.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) did not include pastors in a list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” permitted to leave their homes for the purpose of public health, safety and security. Large public gatherings have been banned in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

RELATED: Sheriff Says Florida Pastor Will Be Arrested Again if He Continues Violating Orders: ‘This Isn’t About Freedom of Religion’

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of Tampa, Florida made a similar argument as Duncan.

“In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients,” a March 18 statement from his church said. “We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty.

RELATED: Texas Pastors, Right-Wing Activist Mount Constitutional Challenge to Stay-At-Home Order

After Howard-Browne continued church services — with hundreds of worshippers in attendance — he was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. The Hillsborough County sheriff warned that this would happen again if the pastor continued to ignore orders.

The pastor has, as of Thursday, changed his tune—sort of. The big news is he closed his church. The reason, according to him: “I have to do this to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from tyrannical government.”

RELATED: Louisiana Pastor Said He Violated Governor’s COVID-19 Order ‘Because the Lord Told Us to’

At least one other pastor has vowed to provide an “outdoor blowout Easter service.”

[Image via KTVU screengrab]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.