It was a blustery day, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and a tiny Christian congregation in Lodi found itself locked out of its church on Palm Sunday.
Seventeen months later, the church’s struggles to hold services during the pandemic have generated a $500,000 payout.
San Joaquin County officials have agreed to pay $100,000 to the church, the Cross Culture Christian Center, according to the church’s law firm, the National Center for Law & Policy.
State officials have agreed to pay $400,000 in attorney’s fees to the law firm, the firm said.
The settlement represents another victory for church groups in their lengthy fight, begun in the early days of the pandemic, to hold in-person church services. While some simply defied Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home directives — including a Rocklin mega-church called Destiny Church — others took the governor to court.
Although Newsom won some early victories, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his ban on church attendance February, in a case involving a church near San Diego.
The court ruled that Newsom was violating religious freedoms — and said the churches were being treated unfairly at a time when stores and restaurants were allowed to reopen. The court did allow for restrictions on the number of people in attendance, and it upheld Newsom’s ban on singing in church on the grounds that it could spread the coronavirus.
Dean Broyles, the head of the National Center for Law & Policy, said the Lodi church shouldn’t have had to fight for the right to hold services.
“While we are pleased with this ultimate result, this epic legal battle was avoidable and unnecessary,” he said in a prepared statement. “Very early in the pandemic, I politely asked Governor Newsom to do his constitutional duty as our public servant by, at a minimum, treating churches as ‘essential,’ as other state governors have done. Unfortunately, he ignored my written request.”
Cross Culture Christian Center had been holding in-person services in defiance of the original stay-at-home orders. But then its landlord — a church that had suspended its own services — locked down the Lodi building on orders from the San Joaquin County public health officer.
An hour before Palm Sunday services were to begin, four Lodi police officers, wearing masks and surgical gloves, met with Pastor Jon Duncan outside the church and agreed to a compromise.
Duncan was allowed to hand out copies of his sermon and pray briefly with congregants as they arrived in their cars. The congregants then drove off — some of them with tears in their eyes.
The church then sued the state and the county. A Fresno church, Cornerstone Church, later joined in the suit but isn’t collecting any damages.
“It’s never acceptable to give up your constitutional rights,” Duncan said in a statement released by Broyles’ firm. “We feel vindicated. Justice is sweet.”
Kristen Hegge, San Joaquin’s chief deputy county counsel, confirmed the $100,000 settlement, which she said will be presented to the Board of Supervisors for approval in two weeks.
Spokesmen for California Attorney General Rob Bonta couldn’t be reached for comment.
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