A year ago Kal Waetzig, senior pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, had to shutter the doors and tell his congregation they could no longer come together to worship inside their church on Chester Drive. On Sunday he will open the doors and welcome the congregation back inside the church after a Supreme Court ruling last Friday struck down a ban on indoor worship services in California.
“What I’ve told our congregation is that we are alone together — like they are watching from home alone but they’re not alone — we’re together in this and that kind of became my catch phrase, alone together,” Waetzig said. “And I said there would be a day when we worship together, together.”
Indoor church services had been closed after a March 19, 2020 executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order, which did not include places of worship as one of the approved places to remain open.
The order came just about a month before the Easter season.
“It was unthinkable. Easter Sunday, I just never knew since the time of Jesus rising from the dead that any church would not worship in person Easter Sunday, it just has never happened for 2000 years,” Waetzig said. “Easter for this year is April 4. Last year it was April 12; those dates are ingrained in my mind. I made the announcement on March 15 — I just have that in my head — that’s when we stopped in-person worship. We did so because we really want to bless our community. We just pivoted to online worship, and for us, because of the space we have with the parking lot, we met a need for those people who just need to see each other. Some of our seniors could stay total safe inside their cars yet worship together.”
The United States Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to lift the ban on indoor services, saying it was discriminatory, as it applied more stringent standards on places of worship than retail stores and businesses.
The ban was challenged in a federal civil complaint against Gov. Gavin Newsom by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego and the Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena.
On their website the Harvest Rock Church said it was their goal to protect constitutional first amendment rights of the church and all people and characterized the governor’s restrictions as “have been specifically aimed at criminalizing in-person worship (both in and outside of private citizens’ homes) as well as criminalizing chanting and singing during such worshipful service."
The court’s decision reinstated indoor services, allowing a cap on attendance at 25% of the building’s capacity and no more than 100 people under Purple Tier restrictions.
The Supreme Court ruling let the ban on singing and chanting indoors remain in place.
“It really is a Constitutional right to gather for worship — that is a Constitutional right. I didn’t insist on that because I wanted to communicate to our community that we’re trying to do our part of loving each other and loving our neighbors by not contributing in any way to the pandemic,” Waetzig said.
Following the pandemic restrictions Waetzig and his congregation transitioned to outdoor drive-in services in the church parking lot that were broadcast on car radios.
“Definitely difficult for faith worshiping, not being able to worship in person is really a challenge,” Waetzig said. “No one knew the pandemic was so real and so big and be so long lasting, it’s unthinkable.”
San Joaquin County Supervisor Robert Rickman said he knew the governor’s restriction against indoor worship services was wrong and voiced his concern over it.
“I spoke out against it as a mayor and here as supervisor as it being unconstitutional. I got people inquiring about the unfairness of it and they were right. In the end, or the beginning, it is religious liberty — that’s what we’re talking about the right to worship as you see fit is an inherit right, not a gift of the state,” Rickman said. “At the end of the day the first amendment prohibits government officials from treating religious exercises differently from comparable secular activities.”
In a written statement released on Saturday Bishop Myron J. Cotta of the Catholic Diocese of Stockton that encompasses St. Bernard’s Church in Tracy said,”"We give thanks for the recent Supreme Court ruling recognizing that the prohibition of indoor worship is a violation of our religious liberty. At the same time, we do not in any way wish to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. We will be returning indoor services, not only because of this ruling but also because we know that it can be done safely. There have been thousands, if not millions, of safe celebrations of the Mass throughout the country over the past months since indoor Masses have resumed. We are still not aware of a single outbreak occurring at a Catholic Mass where safety protocols were being strictly followed, even when an asymptomatic individual was present who later tested positive for COVID-19.”
Cotta said even though churches could return to indoor Masses on Saturday he asked churches to keep an outdoor option available for parishioners.
“I ask priests, where practical, to continue to provide an outdoor Mass, in order to accommodate greater numbers, allow for singing, and provide for those who still may not feel comfortable worshiping inside. In addition, I am also encouraging parishes to continue live-streamed Masses to accommodate the vulnerable who cannot attend public Mass,” Cotta wrote.
The diocese released guidelines for their return to indoor service covering topics from preparations of the church building to how communion will be distributed following COVID-19 precautions.
St. Paul’s will have their Sunday worship service at 10 a.m. on Sunday and Waetzig anticipates about half of the congregation will attend the service. The church will start with the one service and then add more during as needed as more people come back for in-person worship.
Ash Wednesday services will be held on Feb. 17 be in person this year at noon and 7 p.m. There will also be a drive-by imposition of ashes at 12:30 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m.
In the past weeks Waetzig has heard from some of his 75-years-and-older congregation who have received their first COVID-19 vaccination shot and is encouraged by the increasing ICU capacity numbers and recent changes.
“I can just see a little bit of light, and I know they are going to feel a little bit better about being out and maybe coming into worship but we’re still going to have all the safety protocols and there is still going to be people at home so we’re going to still offer our online, maybe never stop that,” Waetzig said.
On this past Sunday the church held their last drive-in worship service.
“When I was standing up on the Life Center I said hey let’s just take a moment of silence and give over our drive-in worship to the Lord. We’re not going to complain, the Bible says to give thanks in all circumstances so for this opportunity for what we were able to do for our church with the drive-in and the online,” Waetzig said.
He then had the congregation sound their horns to mark the end of their last outdoor worship.
“And they just let go, they were just honking about finding out they were going back into the church,” Waetzig said.
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