To the frustration of local health officials, a San Diego County church continues to unabashedly hold indoor services in violation of current public health orders. Awaken Church held indoor services on Sunday at its three county locations as it celebrated its 15th anniversary.
“We’ve made this decision not out of defiance but out of obedience to God and our responsibility as shepherds over the flock that God has entrusted to us,” said Pastor Leanne Matthesius in a pre-taped message posted to Awaken’s Facebook page.
Awaken officials said they were willing to comply with the original county health orders and closed for two weeks in March. The lead pastor said he was happy to do his part to flatten the curve, slow the spread and ensure that hospitals were not overwhelmed. But, he said, that health order has exceeded five months.
“Our governor and county officials continue to keep our churches under strict regulations preventing us from meeting the needs of our congregation and our community,” lead pastor Jurgen Matthesius said.
This is not the first time the Awaken Church has drawn the ire of county health officials.
NBC7.com first reported on July 16 that the church was holding indoor services against public health orders. The county sent compliance officers to the church and eventually issued a cease-and-desist order.
The following week, the church moved outdoors for an event at which dozens of members showed up at the church’s parking lot for a concert. Members were seen shoulder-to-shoulder and were not wearing face masks. The church has continued to hold events in defiance of health orders.
“It is very frustrating and very disconcerting to have an entity that has the capacity and ability to gather in a safe outdoor setting choose to go back indoors,” Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said on Monday.
At Monday’s county health briefing Fletcher pointed to various COVID outbreaks at churches across the county. In San Diego County, there have been eight outbreaks at unnamed faith-based locations.
But while the county has taken aggressive action against gyms and restaurants, it remains to be seen just how far officials will go in preventing churches from gathering indoors.
“The government does not have the authority to violate the fundamental and inalienable constitutional rights, protected by the First Amendment,” said Dean Broyles, a constitutional attorney based in Escondido.
Broyles, president of the National Center for Law & Policy, has represented three California churches that challenged public health orders prohibiting indoor gatherings. He predicts that more churches will soon follow suit and begin to gather indoors.
“A virus does not suspend our constitutional right,” Broyles said. “If it does, we’re not citizens with liberty, but we’re victims of tyranny subject to the whims of government, and that’s not a nation any of us want to live in the long term.”
Violation of a cease-and-desist order carries a potential fine of up to $1,000. So far, the Awaken Church has not been issued a fine, according to a county official.
“We will continue to explore every option that we have, and we will continue to try and appeal to the better angels of our society,” Fletcher said.