“Let my people go.”

That was a repeated refrain offered from religious speakers and hundreds of worshipers who gathered Sunday on the steps of the County Administration Center in downtown San Diego to protest the continued closure of indoor religious gatherings across the country.

As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths increased in recent weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered California churches, as well as gyms, salons and other businesses, to cease all indoor operations.

Art Hodges III, Senior Pastor of South Bay United Pentecostal Church, who coordinated the rally and prayer service, said the government has attacked the churches of America by forcing them to close amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are here today to declare publicly, Gov. (Gavin) Newsom, it’s time to let all God’s children go,” Hodges said at the event. “It’s time to let all God’s children go back to church.”

For Brenda Valencia, of Chula Vista, getting back to church is a top priority. She said even with online prayer services and small bible studies offered through her church, not having a weekly gathering of her friends and church members has been devastating for her and her family.

“It’s just not the same,” Valencia said. “I don’t think we were created to be alone or stand alone, especially during a pandemic. There’s power in unity and not having that unity has been devastating.”

Deborah Doyle, who attended the event with her husband Wayne, echoed that sentiment. She said the economic shutdown has been isolating, and not being able to go to church has made that isolation worse.

“I have two elderly parents who I’m not able to see as much,” Doyle said, as she held a large American flag in her hand. “You can’t see any of your friends, any of your friends at church. Prayer has helped and we have a good community of neighbors, but it’s isolating and it’s not the same.”

According to Hodges, similar prayer and protest rallies were held across the country Sunday afternoon, because the closure of churches is not just a moral issue — it’s a constitutional one.

“America was founded so we could worship the God we want without persecution, without interference from our government,” he said prior to the event. “Ironically, in America, that is being tested like never before.”

Hodges’ church sued Gov. Newsom in May after the first round of shutdowns, which banned all indoor services for places of worship. They lost their first Supreme Court case, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear an amended complaint against the state’s restrictions this week.

“We’re confident that when the court hears our entire full case, we will be vindicated,” said Hodges, who as bishop oversees more than 100 churches and 235 pastors throughout California. “We feel that the court will say ‘Gov. Newsom, you’re out of bound here. You don’t have the authority to restrict our freedom to worship.'”

The state in June allowed churches to reopen with modifications and restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has infected 32,330 and killed 593 people in San Diego County.

Hodges said at that time, the South Bay Pentecostal Church went above and beyond the state’s guidelines and implemented several methods to keep worshipers safe.

All worshipers were required to RSVP for the Sunday services online and complete a series of questions prior to attending. Upon arrival, they were asked additional questions at the door and were required to take their temperature. Masks are worn at all times and all attendees must sit at least six feet apart, unless they are from the same family or household.

“We call it the safest place in town,” Hodges said. “We don’t know of a single person who has become infected or tested positive from our services. We don’t want to be anyone’s excuse for more restrictions.”

But in July, as many counties began opening up businesses, restaurants and churches, the state saw a resurgence of cases and hospitalizations, and Gov. Newsom announced additional statewide restrictions that forced churches, along with indoor malls, bars and gyms, to close immediately and remain closed indefinitely.

Hodges said the move is draconian, discriminatory against churches, and a violation of the constitution.

“I know they’re all trying to do the best they can, but nothing, even a pandemic, gives you the right to aggregate our freedom of religion,” he said. “It’s forcing people to choose between following God’s law and man’s law.”

Ann Matchinske, of San Diego, said she doesn’t categorize herself as a “church person” but is a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution. Her and her husband frequently carry around pocketbook-sized copies of the constitution to give out to friends, or leave a copy — in addition to a tip — when paying a restaurant bill.

She said she attends church and has been meeting with small groups of people for worship, but it was more important for her to come to the event to support the group’s desire to gather and worship.

“The government is overreaching,” Matchinske said. “The government is trying to play God, instead of looking to God, and I don’t like that. A lot of people don’t.”

Most of the crowd at the event wore masks, although some did not. They waved American flags, or held signs that said “open California,” “stand for religious freedoms” and “recall Newsom.” Politics played a role as well, with attendees donning shirts and hats in support of President Donald Trump or Juan Hildalgo Jr., a Republican candidate for the 51st Congressional District.

Richard Busch, who drove from Dana Point in Orange County for the event, was there to help attendees register to vote for the upcoming election and sign a petition against the governor.

“I think people are fed up, fed up that we’re being herded like cattle,” he said. “The church is rising up and saying they’re not going to take it.”

In addition to Hodges, speakers at the event included Pastor Michael Gonzales, of the Plymouth Congregational Church in San Diego; Pastor Dennis Hodges, from The Church of Yeshua Ha Mashiach in Lemon Grove; Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, a leader of the Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista; and Pastor Rocky Martinez, from the Life Christian Center in Chula Vista.


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