San Luis Obispo County, located in central California, has become a sanctuary county for churches struggling to cope state restrictions on worship gatherings.
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow confirmed late last month he will not prosecute churches for holding worship services or for singing in church, which was deemed unlawful by an order from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In many counties, pastors have had to decide between revolting or abiding by the order.
Newsom’s order to ban or limit church gatherings has led to lawsuits from churches and even a federal court ruling in May, where District Judge John A. Mendez ruled that Newsom’s order is legal during the COVID-19 crisis.
“I declare San Luis Obispo County a sanctuary county for singing and praising in our houses of worship,” Dow said in a video shared via Twitter. “Inherent with my responsibility to enforce the law is the discretion I have … to pursue only those charges that are warranted and are in the interest of justice.”
More than 30 counties in California are not allowed to gather for church services, according to Newsom’s order that places even greater restrictions on counties included in the state’s COVID-19 watch list.
Gatherings of 10 people or more in households in those counties are also banned, essentially prohibiting some in-home Bible study gatherings. Whether a church can legally gather or not, singing during worship is disallowed under Newsom’s order.
Churches in other counties not on the watch list are permitted to gather in limited capacities as long as they follow social distancing guidelines.
In Dow’s Twitter announcement, he referenced an Independence Day speech he gave in which where he spoke about the importance of the First Amendment. It was in the July 4 speech that he first declared that San Luis Obispo County would be a “sanctuary county for worship and praise in church.”
Daw contended that the military makes sacrifices to bring freedoms that are “uniquely American.” He said he stands by the speech, reaffirming his stance on Newsom’s gathering ban.
“Now more than ever in 2020, we need more people attending their houses of worship and seeking help from the Almighty for an answer to the coronavirus,” Dow said. “In that spirit, I’m calling on people of faith in our county and across our state, across our country and across the world, to pray for peace [and] healing.”
San Luis Obispo County has 2,254 coronavirus cases and 16 coronavirus-related deaths as of Monday, according to a Los Angeles Times virus tracker.
The county has significantly fewer cases than some of its larger, more urban neighbors. By comparison, Los Angeles County has nearly 209,000 cases as of Monday.
Dow also acknowledged the thousands of prisoners that have been freed in California due to the coronavirus. He stressed how unfair it would be if he were to prosecute a person for attending a religious service.
“At this time our state is letting tens of thousands of state prisoners out of prison who were convicted and sentenced for very serious crimes because we’re concerned they might catch the coronavirus,” Dow said.
“It would be, in my opinion, the very definition of insanity if we simultaneously branded a person of faith as a criminal for singing in a house of worship,” Dow continued. “It would be a severe injustice for my office to charge a person with a crime who has simply chosen to practice their faith by singing with their congregation.”
Not all people of faith see Newsom’s order as an attack on religious freedom.
Pastor John Cox of Riverpark Bible Church in Fresno told The Christian Post earlier this year that the ban put his church in a tricky situation. But he does not want to worship in defiance of the law.
"It put us in a tricky spot. We want to be who God ordered us to be. But also, [we] want to be gracious and submit to leadership," Cox said. "We don't want to worship in defiance or to stand against the government, but as the people of God."
Riverpark has halted in-person services and has held online services since the restrictions began. Cox said he thought the bans used vague language, so his church is being safe by remaining online.
In Ventura County, a judge granted a temporary restraining order last week against Godspeak Calvary Chapel and its Pastor Rob McCoy.
The church is ordered to adhere to statewide and county public health orders requiring that church services be held outdoors with congregants wearing masks and adhering to social distancing protocols.