MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- The Merced County Sheriff's Tactical and Reconnaissance (STAR) team arrived at a small church on Weaver Avenue near Childs Avenue on Monday to cite the pastor for violating orders that prevent gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deputies were first called to Iglesia De Cristo on Easter Sunday and say they found 50-60 people of all ages inside the sanctuary with the doors locked. Investigators say the pastor tried to hide the large crowd by having parishioners park in an overflow lot behind the building.
Sheriff Vern Warnke says, "He put his entire congregation in jeopardy. One person could have showed up not knowing they're infected and infected the entire congregation. They get with their family because they think they're okay, and it continues to go."
Pastor Fernando Aguas was not at the church Monday morning but later agreed to meet with authorities at the Sheriff's Office. That's where Aguas told Action News he thought the gathering rules were only a recommendation and that churches should be exempt because they answer to a higher power.
"The Bible does say that we should not stop gathering," Aguas said.
Sheriff Warnke says he has received several phone calls from people who believe closing churches violates the constitution, but he disagrees due to the orders issued by federal, state, and county health officials to protect public safety.
Warnke explains, "You still have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, you're just gonna have to do it a different way. I'm not telling you you can't worship, I'm just telling you where you can't go to do it, and that's based on this health directive."
Warnke says if churches cannot provide online services themselves, they should direct parishioners to others that do. Pastor Aguas tells us he does not have access to technology, but he has agreed not to open again until the "stay at home" orders are lifted.
"No we can't, because they asked us not to and threatened to take the keys from me, so I don't want to have any arguments with the law," he said.
The citation Pastor Aguas received means he will have to appear in court, but it will be up to a judge to decide what penalty he faces, if any.