Orange County churches have been deemed essential by County Supervisors after pressure from a series of religious leaders and residents over the past few weeks during the coronavirus pandemic. 

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The unanimous Tuesday vote comes on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Monday announcement churches can reopen throughout the state. But the state is mandating church services house less than 25 percent of maximum capacity or 100 people and practice the CDC-recommended six-foot physical distancing to slow the virus spread. 

Supervisors said the restrictions go too far. 

“These guidelines allow houses of worship to open with many restrictions. They even discourage singing and gathering for holidays,” Chairwoman Michelle Steel said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Supervisor Don Wagner heavily criticized the guidelines. 

“Can you imagine having told George Washington or John Adams or Patrick Henry or Ben Franklin that your First Amendment right to worship and your First Amendment right to protest can be limited by the government if we think there’s maybe just too many of you? You would’ve taken your life in your hands making that claim to George Washington,” Wagner said. 

He also said the First Amendment should have prevented church closures in the first place. 

“All we have to say is get out of our damn way so we can pray.” 

Over the past weekend, OC’s business reopening plans were approved by state health officials and dine-in restaurants and retail centers were allowed to reopen. Newsom went further Monday and announced all counties can now reopen restaurants and shopping malls. 

OC Health Office Dr. Nichole Quick also issued a health order Saturday requiring Orange County residents wear masks when they go out in public. 

Through Steel’s questions, County Sheriff Don Barnes said his deputies won’t enforce the church restrictions.

“We have dealt with these issues for some time. My department is being put in the middle of some strife that occurs throughout the community,” Barnes said. “In positions that are not consistent with the First Amendment.” 

Over Memorial Day weekend, Barnes threatened to pull patrols out of San Clemente following a protest to reopen the beach last Thursday.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Barnes also said sheriff deputies won’t be enforcing Quick’s mask order. 

“We are not the mask police nor do I intend to be the mask police.” 

Many congregations are simply too large to follow the state guidelines, Supervisors Lisa Bartlett said. 

“It’s very constraining. There are a number of houses of worship that are very large and 100 doesn’t even include 2 percent of their congregation,” Bartlett said. 

She said the Saddleback church in her area would have to hold services in a production line-style manner to accommodate the entire congregation. 

“They would literally have to hold services every two minutes,” Bartlett said. 

Supervisors Doug Chaffee and Andrew Do made it clear the resolution has no legal authority and doesn’t supersede state health orders. 

Do said it’s a balancing act between religious freedom and public health. 

“That is a delicate balancing act between our right and public health, so I would like us to be very clear this is not in any way a statement to defy what is good for public health or state law,” Do said. “It is not one or the other. That we can do this in a way that’s safe and in a way that protects each other.” 

Chaffee asked County Counsel Leon Page what the resolution means for Orange County. 

“I think the resolution represents this Board’s position,” Page said. “Does it transcend the CDPH (CA Dept. of Public Health) guidance? In my view, no.” 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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