Merced County Sheriff and pastor find common ground after citation

MERCED COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- A Merced County pastor who was cited for holding an Easter Sunday service with dozens of people has now reached an agreement with authorities -- and even formed a friendship with the sheriff.

Sheriff Vern Warnke and Pastor Fernando Aguas shared a warm greeting Tuesday morning at Iglesia De Cristo on Weaver Avenue. It's a welcome change for both men after a much different scene at the church one week earlier.

Deputies showed up to issue a citation for holding an Easter Sunday service with 50-60 people inside the sanctuary. But the pastor of another local church, Gateway Community, later facilitated a meeting between the two leaders where they found common ground.

Sheriff Warnke says, "Both of us have a strong faith in our lord Jesus, and we both have different responsibilities. His is so focused on the spiritual aspect where I am spiritual but I have a legal responsibility, and this was a wonderful meeting."

Pastor Aguas says, "I see him from a different perspective. I respect him, and I'm happy to have him as one of the authorities in this county."

The two spoke about the possibility of shifting services online, but Pastor Aguas says many of the 100 parishioners who would typically fill his chapel do not have access to technology.

So instead they came up with a different compromise. Aguas and other church leaders will visit people at their homes and ensure social distancing.

Aguas adds, "We have to have the opportunity to reach out to them, and we are in that process."

But across the country, the battle continues between those who believe churches should be allowed to hold in-person services and those who say public safety comes first.

California recently changed its policy to allow for drive-in services amid a lawsuit filed by the Center for American Liberty.

RELATED: Some local churches considering drive-in services with new policy change

The same organization sent a letter to the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Friday demanding they rescind the current health order or face a federal lawsuit.

Officials say the public health department is continuing to assess the situation, and Sheriff Warnke has faith there will be more consensus on the issue soon.

He says, "I think we can still work with the government code and still meet people's spiritual needs."

Warnke also says he is taking steps to rescind the citation that was issued, so Pastor Aguas will no longer be required to appear in court.
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