California Pastor Defies State Order to Hold Service, Tells Congregants Government's 'Taking Away Our Rights'

A pastor at a California church told congregants on Sunday it was time for the church to "take a stand" against recent government efforts to close places of worship in areas where new coronavirus cases are on the rise.

During a sermon that was delivered at Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin and streamed online, pastor Greg Fairrington warned congregants that not classifying places of worship as essential services threatened their rights and the church's role in the future.

"The government is taking away our rights," he said. "Once your rights are taken from you, they're never giving them back."

California is one of several states that have reported record high numbers of new virus cases in recent weeks. In response to the rising numbers, Governor Gavin Newsom last week ordered several businesses and community spaces to shut down for in-person services in the 29 counties on the state's County Data Monitoring list, which gauges each area's progress toward containing the virus. The 29 counties account for 80 percent of the state's population, according to the governor's office.

Outdoor church service
People wearing face masks attend an outdoor Sunday service at Saints Simon & Jude Catholic Church in Huntington Beach, California, on July 19. While some churches have been holding outdoor services amid the coronavirus pandemic, others continue to operate indoors in defiance of local public health orders. APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to the gyms, bars, nail salons and other indoor spaces that Newsom ordered shut down, churches and other places of worship within the 29 counties were told to close for indoor services until their area is removed from the monitoring list. Businesses and services that are able to transition outdoors were allowed to do so.

Destiny Christian Church is in Placer County, one of the 29 affected by the governor's latest closure orders. Though the church streamed its Sunday sermon online and began its service outdoors, Fairrington held the bulk of the event indoors. According to The Sacramento Bee, the church did not allow journalists inside to observe the sermon but told local reporters the church was at 25 percent capacity, with about 375 people congregating indoors. The church told the paper it distributed masks to those who requested them and asked people inside to practice social distancing.

Fairrington said during his sermon the virus was not the real reason behind the government's closure decision. "I'm here to tell you the virus has nothing to do about this moment we're in right now," he said. "If we do not take a stand and say 'You have gone far enough,' we'll be having this same conversation in six weeks, six months and even a year from now."

Fairrington also said that the church's congregants were facing a "spiritual conflict" and that the government's closure decisions were its latest efforts "to suppress the voice of the church."

Fairrington told Newsweek he had a responsibility to his congregants to keep services going and said the church was taking several precautions to prevent the virus from spreading.

"The church is essential," Fairrington continued. "For the church to be labeled as nonessential in a moment of crisis in our nation is to not understand the role of the church. Our church is filled with business owners who are losing their businesses, employees who have lost their jobs, families who cannot have memorial services to grieve the loss of a loved one, weddings to celebrate a new chapter in life.

"The church is essential in this moment because we are a hospital of a different kind: a spiritual and emotional hospital for people in need. It's a place that people find hope. It's a place that they can come and pour out their hearts to their God. If there's ever a time that the church is needed, it's not in the time of prosperity. It is in a time of crisis."

The pastor added that he has a responsibility to my community to provide a place of worship and hope. "Beyond that, I have a constitutional right to open our doors and allow people to come with a free expression of religion. We practice social distancing, wear masks, take temperatures, keep our capacity at 25 percent and urge at-risk individuals to stay home and watch online."

The debate over how places of worship should operate during the pandemic has continued in the weeks after President Donald Trump said in late May that they provide essential services to Americans and ordered governors to allow all churches to reopen. In the weeks since, health officials around the U.S. have linked hundreds of coronavirus cases to in-person religious services.

Despite the risks that state and federal health officials said large gatherings pose during the pandemic, several churches decided to move forward with in-person services, some in defiance of local health orders. In California, Destiny Christian Church is not alone in defying the governor's order—one church in San Diego reportedly held an indoor service with between 100 and 200 people two days after Newsom's latest order. In addition, a church in Los Angeles County—which has the greatest number of virus cases in the state—made local headlines for its decision to continue holding indoor services.