More than 1,200 pastors in California say they will open their churches on the Christian holy day of Pentecost, celebrated this year on May 31, regardless of whether Gov. Gavin Newsom permits them to do so.
“Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Christian church and other faiths have been relegated to ‘nonessential’ status,” the pastors said in a petition to the Democratic governor. “But we, the signers of this declaration, believe and contend that gathering together in fellowship and worship is ‘essential.’”
Newsom, like other governors, has been gradually easing some coronavirus restrictions, including allowing retail businesses and restaurants in some counties to reopen with social distancing guidelines. A statewide ban on in-person religious gatherings remains in force, however.
The governor said Monday that religious services may be able to resume in the next few weeks if the rate of coronavirus infections holds relatively steady. But many pastors say they won’t wait that long.
In their petition to Newsom, titled a “Declaration of Essentiality for Churches,” the church leaders said that while they were “thankful” for the state’s efforts to protect the public from the virus, “the remaining threat of COVID-19 is outweighed by the severe restrictions upon the free exercise of our religion that we deem ‘essential.’”
The pastors said they would follow “reasonable” social distancing guidelines, but would hold in-person services ― whether Newsom approves or not ― in time for Pentecost.
“The churches are not asking for permission,” Bob Tyler, an attorney advising some of the pastors, told the Christian Broadcasting Network. “The governor is sitting here as a dictator, trumping the Constitution, and is kind of hanging onto this state of emergency for as long as he can hold it.”
The pastors ― some of whom have sued Newsom over his virus restrictions ― will give the governor “an opportunity to amend his order,” Tyler said. And “if he doesn’t, these pastors have told me that they’re committed to opening regardless of what the governor decides,” he added.
The Trump administration has also been putting pressure on Newsom to allow California churches to reopen. The U.S. Justice Department told Newsom in a letter Tuesday that he may be infringing upon churches’ constitutional rights by keeping them shut.
California has reported over 86,000 cases of COVID-19. One was a churchgoer who attended an in-person Mother’s Day service at Palermo Bible Family Church in Butte County, held in defiance of Newsom’s virus restrictions. That individual later tested positive for the coronavirus, and may have exposed more than 180 people to the disease, health officials said.