Coronavirus: Landlord changes locks on California church after pastor intends to continue services

LODI, Calif. — Oh, Lord, locked out in Lodi ...

A pastor in California found the locks changed to his church and his congregation locked out of Palm Sunday services after health officials and law enforcement ordered the building closed due to the coronavirus, KCRA reported.

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Jon Duncan, the pastor at Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, originally kept the doors to the church open, saying California’s shelter-in-place orders violated his freedom to assemble, KTTV reported. The landlord is Bethel Open Bible Church, the television station reported.

"It’s (Bethel’s) property and they are ultimately responsible for it, (they) did have the locks changed,” Lodi Police Lt. Michael Manetti told KCRA.

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“We’re going to meet as often as we can meet, and we do believe that this right is protected by the First Amendment and should be considered essential,” Duncan said in an interview with KTXL last week.

Duncan told the television station the church had put social distancing measures in place.

“We are not a church that takes the virus lightly nor do we have in our minds to act reckless,” Duncan told KTXL. “We believe that precautions need to be taken.”

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Sunday, a small group of congregants showed up to the church to defy the shelter-in-place order, but discovered they had been locked out.

“I’m not thrilled in general with the restriction on religious liberties,” Jeremy Duncan, the pastor’s brother told KTTV. “Especially during what is Christian’s most holy week.”

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Officers spoke to Jon Duncan on the sidewalk about an hour before his service was to begin, the Los Angeles Times reported, calling the discussion "fairly cordial.” Officers gave him a copy of the county order, Manetti told the newspaper.

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The church retained a lawyer from the National Center for Law & Policy, a conservative Christian nonprofit law center, according to the Times.

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“We don’t believe that a virus cancels the First Amendment,” Jon Duncan told KCRA.