Calif. sheriff says churchgoers still have rights, as long as he says so

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Dozens of worshippers were found on Easter Sunday at the at the Iglesia De Jesus Cristo in Merced, Calif. (Google Street View)

In what might be the most memorable quote of the coronavirus outbreak, a California sheriff who broke up a lawless Easter service declared that everyone still has freedom of religion and speech and assembly, as long as he approves of it.

The pastor of Iglesia De Jesus Cristo in Merced, Fernando Aguas, was cited for violating the state’s stay-at-home order when dozens of worshippers were found at his church Easter Sunday, reports KFSN News.

Neighbors reported the church to authorities when they saw people at the church, and when deputies arrived they discovered 50 to 60 people inside having an Easter service, with their cars hidden behind the building.

In the days before Easter, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke had warned that everyone should stay home that day to stop the spread of the virus.

“Folks, you elected me because you trust me. Continue to trust me,” he said, adding that he was seeing the effects of COVID-19 in the community.

Aguas could face a fine of $1,000 and go to jail for six months. He’s scheduled to appear in court in August.

In an interview with KTVU on Tuesday, Aguas said that six officers in full tactical gear showed up and were “aggressive.” He said he had thought the stay-at-home orders were just guidelines, in a country where people have the constitutional right to free assembly.

“It wasn’t fair what he did,” Aguas told KTVU about Warnke. “When he quoted the Constitution, he was wrong. We have the right to assemble.”

Aguas said churches should be exempt from the order. He added that there was space inside between those praying, but that not everyone had his face covered.

Warnke countered: “You still have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, you’re just gonna have to do it a different way.”

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