We’ve noted on this blog several times that the vast majority of religious leaders in America are doing the right thing during the coronavirus outbreak by moving services online or temporarily suspending them – but reports continue to come in about pastors who are determined to ignore stay-at-home orders.

The latest is from Lodi, Calif., where Pastor John Duncan of Cross Culture Christian Center continues to hold Sunday services that attract 25-50 people, in violation of orders from officials of San Joaquin County and the state of California that ban public gatherings.

After Lodi police officers visited the congregation to educate members about the dangers of holding services, the church enlisted an extreme Religious Right legal group called the National Center for Law & Policy to send a letter to city officials asserting that its rights are being violated.

“I must insist that you and your officers respect CCCC’s constitutional rights and immediately cease and desist any and all unlawful police threats of enforcement actions or enforcement actions against the church,” wrote attorney Dean Broyles.

Yesterday Americans United responded with its own letter to Lodi officials to let them know that Broyles and his group are wrong: Legal precedent clearly states that during public health emergencies, large gatherings, religious and secular, can be curbed.

“It has long been established that state and local governments have the power to impose reasonable restrictions on personal liberty to protect the public from contagious disease,” Alex J. Luchenitser, AU associate legal director, and Patrick Grubel, Madison legal fellow, wrote to Lodi municipal and law enforcement officials. “Lodi therefore can and should continue to enforce the emergency orders equally against religious and nonreligious institutions.”

AU’s letter noted that religious gatherings have sparked outbreaks of coronavirus around the country. In Bartow County, Ga., 40 early cases of coronavirus were linked to a single church event.

“A single unwitting carrier in the Christian Center’s congregation could cause a ripple effect through the entire community: That one carrier might pass the virus to the worshippers next to him, who might then return home and pass it to their family members, including people at high risk of severe illness,” asserted Luchenitser and Grubel. “If those infected family members then go to the doctor’s office, or to the grocery store for milk, they may potentially expose others, who may then do the same to their families – and so on.”

As AU President and CEO Rachel Laser told Bloomberg News recently, “This virus doesn’t discriminate – it endangers people whether they gather for religious or secular purposes, and it puts entire communities at risk.”

That includes Lodi. Here’s hoping officials there take Americans United’s advice and ignore the National Center for Law & Policy’s misguided analysis.

Photo by Randy Elliott via Creative Commons