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A Santa Rosa-area church fined three times in the past two weeks after months of holding large, indoor services that violated local public health orders plans to host a three-day spiritual retreat for as many as 150 people, with some of them arriving from out of state.
Spring Hills Church in Fulton lists the Feb. 18-20 Northern California Prayer Summit on its website, as does Strategic Renewal International, a Denver-based religious nonprofit that is the organizer of the workshop primarily intended for Christian leaders throughout the region. The event registration page notes the church has a large facility with rooms spacious enough for breakout sessions to allow for adherence to social distancing guidelines. “An outdoor option with heaters is also available to us,” reads the event’s sign-up page, which offers group rates.
Other than a late-night exemption granted for religious services by the U.S. Supreme Court late Friday night, indoor gatherings of any number of people remain prohibited in Sonoma County. The region continues to operate under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most restrictive level of a four-tier, color-coded system to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The county has failed to exit the purple tier — indicating widespread transmission of the virus — since Newsom launched the system in August. It returned to those same limits at the conclusion of the most recent stay-home order that was lifted late last month.
While the purple tier of Newsom’s statewide system caps outdoor gatherings at no more than three separate households, it does not place such restrictions on houses of worship, so long as they mind social distancing and use of face masks. The Supreme Court’s decision Friday night clouded that picture, though, as the 6-3 ruling found that the state could not ban indoor religious services outright, though attendance can be limited to 25% of capacity and a ban on singing and chanting was upheld.
The county’s permit department, which oversees enforcement of the health order in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, plans to continue monitoring activities at Spring Hills Church each weekend to ensure compliance — including the scheduled retreat in two weeks.
“They know we’re aware of it. They know that we are aware that on their website it indicates such an event is scheduled,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s permit department. “How they choose to hold it if it’s not inside could be in compliance with the order.”
Last weekend, Bret Avlakeotes, senior pastor of Spring Hills Church, told the congregation during a Sunday afternoon sermon that he would shift the church back to outdoor worship services, in part to avoid a public standoff with the county.
“We’re not looking to prove anything, and we’re not looking for a fight, all right?” he said. “If the county’s going to come in and is going to fight us all the way, then we’ll probably let them win this one. We’ll go outside.”
It was unclear how Friday’s Supreme Court ruling might affect the church’s plans.
Avlakeotes on Jan. 28 committed to continuing indoor worship services, after county code enforcement staff documented several violations of the public health order and fined the church $100 following repeat warnings dating back to September. He and other church officials said they moved their four total Saturday and Sunday services — which altogether were drawing about 400 people each weekend — from outdoors to indoors as the weather cooled in the fall.
The county’s Jan. 24 visit to the church also led to an internal investigation of a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy whose report on the 9: 30 a.m. church service conflicted with what was documented by permit department staff and a Press Democrat reporter. The sheriff’s office on Friday denied a Press Democrat request under the California Public Records Act for any video from the deputy’s body-worn camera shot during his visit to the church. In a written statement, the department cited a state exemption as well as privacy concerns, stating that not releasing the recordings better serves the public’s interest than disclosure.
In follow-up visits of Spring Hills Church this past Saturday and Sunday, the county’s code enforcement team once more documented large, indoor services with many attendees choosing to go without masks. Those reviews resulted in two additional $100 fines, making the church the only entity in the unincorporated county to be cited three times during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
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