Members of a Slavic church near Rancho Cordova make up nearly a quarter of all the COVID-19 cases in Sacramento County. The county says the church has been resistant to stop its members from holding private meetings, but church leaders say they've advised members to distance themselves.
As of Tuesday, 71 members of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church near Rancho Cordova had tested positive for COVID-19, and Sacramento County health officials expect that number to increase. Of all the cases in the county, 23 percent are church members. They have told medical staff they have not been following state and county social-distancing directives and instead have been participating in church groups at members’ homes.
The county initially refused to name the church, but has reversed course. Health officials say they have asked church leaders to put a stop to the meetings, but say they were met with opposition.
“According to our Director of Health Service Dr. (Peter) Beilenson, when we have reached out, they’ve basically told us to leave us alone, that they will continue to meet, that it’s very important to their community and they don’t want any interference in that,” county spokeswoman Janna Haynes said.
But a representative for the church says that’s not true. Valentina Bondaruk works in the church office and, when reached by phone Wednesday, said the church has been closed and that leaders have been urging members to stay away from each other.
“From church we ask to be very careful with this and separate,” she said and added that the church cannot control the actions of its members. “We don’t know if they follow the rules because we don’t see them, you know?” she said. “Everybody is outside. We don’t see what people do.”
Bondaruk said the church has been delivering sermons using the Zoom meeting app and she has sent letters to members urging them to be separate and to follow government orders.
“We ask to be separate from each other and be at home,” she said.
The county says a church pastor is among the 71 who have tested positive. About 100 people countywide have tested positive as a result of attending religious gatherings.
As to whether law enforcement can take action against a group of people who are violating the county’s stay-at-home directive for religious reasons, McGeorge School of Law professor Leslie Jacobs says yes.
“As long as the order is a general one, which it is, that says you can’t gather no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s religion or a brewpub, then it’s a neutral law and there’s no special right that the religious practitioners have to be able to gather in violation of the order,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs says freedom of speech and assembly protections can also be restricted if they apply to everyone equally.
The county says it has not considered what enforcement action might be taken and is hopeful continued communication with the church leaders will result in them doing a better job of keeping their members apart.
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