SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — A fight between church and state has emerged in California, something that would have been unheard just months ago.
But as millions of Californians are ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom to stay at home to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Sacramento County is struggling to keep parishioners away from the house of God.
While many churches in Sacramento have moved to a virtual setting, there are some who feel their religious freedoms are being attacked.
"Welcome to another Sunday civil disobedience act," said Rivers of Living Waters Pastor Dan Ostring in video published to YouTube Sunday. "We were told to stay home. Don't go to church. You might get sick. You might. I ain't never seen such fear mongering in my life."
Sacramento's Rivers of Living Waters church published its most recent service to YouTube four days ago, noting its parishioners practiced social distancing.
In a Facebook message to ABC10 regarding the station's reporting on his church, Ostring said "Thank you for the hate mail."
"The joke's on you people only have 10 people come to my church and they all at least 10 feet apart from each other jokes on you (sic)," the pastor wrote.
Last week, Ostring told the chuchgoers that the government will start arresting people for going to church.
While county officials say Ostring's statement is patently false, parishioners going to church weekly has led to an increase of coronavirus cases in Sacramento County.
Public health officials said Wednesday that a third of the county's 314 confirmed coronavirus cases have been linked to church gatherings.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, the county's Director of the Department of Health Services says the health order is temporary and not targeting groups. But in order to slow the spread of the virus that has already infected nearly 824,000 people worldwide, there has to be a community effort in social distancing.
"Social distancing works," Beilenson said. "We must keep our distance from others and not gather with any non-household members. Period. If we do not slow the spread of cases, a surge of sick people could have the potential to overwhelm our hospitals, doctors and equipment resources and could result in additional deaths."
Even churches that have since moved their services online parishioners who gathered on their own to worship caught the virus.
Pastor Jeff Chapman said his congregation, Faith Presbyterian Church, serves as a cautionary tale as to why churches should find different outlets to distribute sermons to churchgoers.
Last month, several parishioners at Faith Presbyterian were infected with coronavirus and two died — one of which, a Sacramento substitute teacher, was one of the county's first COVID-19 related death.
Since the first death, Sacramento County has had eight others die, all of them either had underlying health conditions or were at least 65 years old.
"The scriptures teach us, that people of faith are not immune to diseases, whether it be COVID-19 or cancer," Chapman said.
The church is now among many holding service and community events virtually. Chapman said it's attendance is actually up as people stuck inside during stay at home orders continue to seek community.
Chapman is urging all followers to pray at home, for the safety of the greater good.
"Churches exist for the sake of serving the community," Chapman said. "We're not about ourselves."
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Editor's note: This story has been updated to add a statement from Rivers of Living Waters Pastor Dan Ostring later given to ABC10.
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