As Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out what the path to reopening will look like this week, one thing became clear for the faithful locally and statewide: Churches aren't reopening soon enough. 

Restarting church services would happen in Stage 3 of the governor's plan, which could be weeks or months away. The state entered the first phase of Stage 2 on Friday, which allowed more retail businesses to open for curbside and delivery sales, and the reopening of manufacturing and logistics that support those businesses. Restaurant dining rooms, schools and offices will reopen in a later phase of Stage 2.

Religious services have been slated for Stage 3, along with personal services like hair and nail salons, gyms, movie theaters, and sporting events without live audiences.

And that just doesn't make sense to some.

"It just seems illogical kids can go back to school, restaurants can open back up but churches can't," said Wendell Vinson, head pastor of Canyon Hills Assembly of God Church and co-founder of CityServe, a large network of churches that provides supplies to those in need. "That's problematic. I think there will be pushback on that issue."
CityServe and Kern Leadership Alliance are working on behalf of more than 200 local churches and with elected officials to get the reopening of churches moved to the later parts of Stage 2 of the governor's reopening roadmap.
The issue was brought up at the Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting and the Bakersfield City Council meeting last week, and state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, delivered a letter, signed by Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, and a handful of other state legislators, urging the governor to reconsider his timeline for religious services.
"The churches (reopening) is particularly painful because of how important they are for life and sustenance," said Supervisor Leticia Perez during the board's meeting May 5. Perez's father is a preacher and she said he calls her daily to ask if she knows when he can reopen his church.
"If schools can open while still exercising appropriate physical distancing and other precautions, it seems houses of worship, many of which have fewer people on-site for a typical service than local public schools have on normal weekdays, should be able to assemble while taking steps necessary to keep their congregations safe," said the letter sent to the governor by Grove and Fong.
Stay-at-home orders have exacerbated feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression, and increased substance abuse and domestic violence, Grove said in a statement.
"During this time when people are mourning lost loved ones and struggling in their everyday lives, it is more important than ever that houses of worship be open for millions of Californians to seek hope, encouragement, support, and healing," Grove said. "Houses of worship should be considered a higher priority for the governor and be included into Stage 2 of our state's reopening plan."

Vinson echoed Grove's concern. While some have raised issues of religious liberty and First Amendment rights, the pastor said he is more concerned about addressing the side effects created by quarantine and isolation, the negative effects of which are equal to or perhaps worse than the virus itself, he said.

"The sooner churches can gather, the better for our community, no question about it," said Vinson, a pastor of 37 years. "That being said, we recognize it be done in a way that doesn't put people in harm's way."

Vinson also feels it's best for local churches to present a unified front in pressing for an earlier reopening, and not opening before they get the go-ahead, out of respect for local leaders. 

Not everyone is so patient.

Hundreds of churches around the state this week announced their intent to reopen May 31. And at least a couple of churches locally are eager to reopen immediately. 

At a rally in downtown Bakersfield last week, Rev. James Hunt from Apostolic Lighthouse Church of Oildale said his church closed its doors for seven weeks, but decided to reopen recently.

“We’re not a rebellious group, but we don’t want the government stepping on our toes,” Hunt said.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he wouldn't cite or arrest anyone who held church services, saying "there's no right answer to this."  

Youngblood said he struggles with the marijuana dispensaries being allowed to operate but people can't go to church.

"From a public health standpoint, I hope people continue to follow the guidelines but from a personal standpoint, I totally understand why they may not," the sheriff said. "If you can go congregate at Costco, Home Depot, Lowe’s, please explain the difference to me from people who want to go to church and follow the distancing rules."

"I have to stand with those people because I believe that way."

In his daily news conference May 7, Newsom briefly addressed the issue of religious services, noting that he did designate as essential the work that churches do serving those in need and providing child care.

“Our fear is simply this: Congregations of people mixing from far and wide, coming together, proximate in an enclosed space at large scales is a point of obvious concern and anxiety,” he said.

The governor said he will work with faith leaders on the issue and said "none of this is etched in stone."

Supervisor Mike Maggard said he thinks it's likely the governor will eventually stand down on the issue, like he did when Orange County refused to close its beaches.

Newsom doesn't seem to have much leverage. Unlike with restaurants or hair salons, the state issues no licenses to churches. Their tax-exempt status is granted by the federal government, and President Donald Trump is supportive of churches reopening.

In early April, police did shut down services at a Lodi church, and the church subsequently sued for a violation of First Amendment rights. However, a federal judge in Sacramento last week ruled that Newsom had the authority to ban religious assemblies in order the protect public health. 

Maggard said his hope is that Newsom will talk to and listen to the concerns of church leaders, and reach a compromise.

"This is a really fundamental issue to people. I don’t believe they’re going to wait indefinitely before they act," Maggard said. "But I know they want to act responsibly and carefully." 

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