A California pastor is facing a fine of $1,000, or potentially even six months in jail, after approximately 40 deputies in tactical gear showed up to his Easter service and accused him of hiding congregants from law enforcement.
The Merced County Sheriff claims that they were tipped off about dozens of worshippers violating the state’s stay-at-home order and attending Easter services at Iglesia De Jesus Cristo Palabra Miel on Weaver Avenue.
During services, law enforcement said that congregants parked out of view and the doors to the church were locked. Pastor Fernando Aguas claims that they had simply parked in the back to avoid problems.
“We weren’t hiding,” Pastor Aguas said. “There were kids running around everywhere. We just had people park in back because we didn’t want problems.”
Though people in the church were social distancing and keeping space between them, Pastor Aguas admits that some were not wearing masks.
Pastor Aguas said that the sheriff’s deputies were “aggressive” in handling the situation and believes that their freedom to assemble has been violated. The pastor said that he believed the social distancing order to be a recommendation, not a requirement.
Sheriff Vernon H. Warnke claimed during a press conference that the pastor had put people’s health at risk.
“He put his entire congregation in jeopardy,” Warnke said. “By putting them in jeopardy, one person could have showed up, not known they’re infected and infected the entire congregation. This congregation now goes out and gets with their family because they think they’re okay, and then it continues to go.”
When asked about Pastor Aguas’ First Amendment rights, Sheriff Warnke claimed that they were not violated.
“You still have freedom of speech, you still have freedom of religion, you’re just gonna have to do it a different way,” he said. “I’m not telling you you can’t worship, I’m just telling you where you can’t go to do it, and that’s based upon this health directive.”
KTVU reports that Aguas said he was handed a citation that said he could face a fine of $1,000 and even go to jail for six months. His court date is scheduled for August.
Attorney General William Barr announced last week that the Department of Justice will be monitoring for potential discrimination against religious services.
Three churches in Southern California sued Governor Gavin Newsom and other officials on Monday, arguing that orders violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly.
“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,” the churches’ attorney, Harmeet K. Dhillon, told KTVU.