California pastors and religious leaders doubled down Thursday on promises of opening the doors to their houses of worship at the end of May, with or without the state's blessing.
"We’re more than essential. It's time to open the doors of the church," South Bay Pentecostal Church's Pastor Arthur E. Hodges III proclaimed.
Hodges is already suing the county and state for what he alleges is a violation of the First Amendment, but he and other religious leaders also eager to reopen gathered in protest Thursday.
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"We got religious services in stage 3, no date listed, sandwiched between movie theaters and sports leagues," Hodges said.
More than 1,200 leaders across the state have signed a “declaration of essentially” and have marked May 31 -- the celebration of Pentecostal Sunday for some -- on their calendars as their day for modified reopening.
“This letter was not sent for the purposes of asking for permission,” an attorney representing some churches in the group told the Associated Press.
The attorney said the places of worship plan to respect social distancing guidelines and adhere to other pandemic-time safety regulations. One pastor at Thursday's protest says they have yet to receive a "rule book" or safety plan similar to those the state and county have made available to other industries.
Hodges, along with Rabbi Mendel Polichenco of Chabad of Carmel Valley, filed a 128-page civil rights lawsuit on May 8 in San Diego federal court challenging California Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay at home orders and orders from San Diego County and city leaders.
“It is time,” the lawsuit begins. “California is one of only eight states whose response to the COVID-19 pandemic has included no accommodation for—hardly even a mention of—the religious rights of its citizens. Now, with the pandemic stabilizing, California has moved from ‘Stage 1’ to ‘Stage 2.’ In the first part of Stage 2, beginning on Friday, May 8, retail and manufacturing may begin reopening—but not places of worship.”
“In the latter part of Stage 2, within a ‘few weeks,’ shopping malls, car washes, pet grooming, offices, dine-in restaurants, schools may reopen—but again, not places of worship,” the suit continues. “No, churches will be allowed to reopen months later in ‘Stage 3,’ at the same time as salons, tattoo parlors, gyms, bars, and movie theaters. But worship is not frivolous entertainment: it is the first right protected in the First Amendment.”
So far, Hodges and Polichenco have abided by state and county orders to keep their places of worship shut. But that will change May 31, at the latest.
The bishop told NBC 7 earlier this month that he understands the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve personally had two very close friends that have been lost to COVID,” he explained over a video interview.
Still, Hodges said assembling in person is key to his religion and the several hundred people in his congregation. He also recognizes the potential health risks of having his congregation together in one space again, but his church is planning for this.
“We’ve got charts churches of every size can use; if your square footage is this, and you’ve normally seated this, then this is what you can expect to seat and this is how you arrange,” he added.
On Tuesday the Department of Justice sent a letter to Newsom asking him to make more accommodations in his reopening plan for places of worship.
Hodges and Polichenco are being represented by the Law Offices of LiMandri & Jonna LLP, Thomas More Society, and Dhillon Law Group.
Read the full lawsuit here.