ENCINITAS — In opposition to what organizers have regarded as unconstitutional and unfair restrictions of religious activities due to COVID-19, evangelical Christians packed Cardiff State Beach on July 26 in Encinitas for worship and civil disobedience.
“Across America, thousands of people gather and protest in the streets, and … yet we’re not allowed to gather and worship and sing,” Sean Feucht, who spearheads a multi-city movement including the Cardiff gathering, told Fox & Friends, a morning show, July 30. “It is a double standard, … at best it’s hypocrisy and at worst it’s bigotry, that there’s a target on churches.”
Under Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, religious congregations may not conduct indoor services constituting more than 100 people or 25% of building capacity as of July 29. Congregations also may not sing or chant indoors. Outdoor services are subject to “strict physical distancing measures of a minimum of six feet.”
Announcements for the Cardiff event bore the tagline, “Let Us Worship,” mirroring Feucht’s online petition to oppose such restrictions from public officials in California and elsewhere.
Feucht, a charismatic revivalist Christian musician, founded “Hold the Line,” a grassroots effort to get Christians, especially millennials, “more politically active,” according to his web site.
The Cardiff gathering, under the Hold the Line banner, joins others, such as in Redding (July 22), Pasadena (July 23), Bakersfield (July 24) and Fresno (July 25). Gatherings are also planned in cities nationwide, including Portland, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Cardiff worshipper-protestors drew local criticism and media attention. While “peaceful,” they congregated without “any regard for public health orders” or “a permit to be here,” San Diego’s NBC 7 reported. Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s public health officer, called the group’s non-compliance “egregious violations,” according to the LA Times.
On several occasions in June, people assembling in Encinitas to protest police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death also didn’t obtain permission or follow all COVID-19 safety measures.
While most at that event wore masks and organizers took certain other precautions, protesters stood shoulder to shoulder. They also lacked the required city permit, from which “‘free speech’ events are not exempt,” said Encinitas Assistant City Manager Mark Delin.
Elected officials there included U.S. Congressman Mike Levin (D-CA), California State Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-76), Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Encinitas Councilwoman Kellie Hinze.
“To protest is patriotic,” Levin told the protestors. “We must guarantee the right to assemble.”
“You are today’s activists and today’s leaders,” Boerner Horvath said.
The Coast News sent repeated requests for comment to the four officials who attended, asking whether they knew the June 5 gathering didn’t have a permit and whether they support all groups’ right to protest while in violation of public health guidelines, but only Hinze responded.
“The state’s revised language as of May 25 makes it explicitly legal to protest under the Stay at Home order,” Hinze said. “There’s a profound difference between protesting the public health order itself and protesting under a public health order.”
On May 25, “to balance First Amendment interests with public health,” state directives allowed “in-person outdoor … protests as long as face coverings are worn and physical distancing of 6 feet … is maintained at all times,” according to the state’s COVID-19 web site.
The June 4 county public health order, in force at the time, didn’t provide any social distancing exception for protests. Subsequent state guidance held that “cloth face coverings are not a substitute for physical distancing,” and, according to the CDC, physical distancing “is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus.”
“While complete physical distancing was not possible [at the Kook, due to the venue’s narrow layout], risk was purposefully minimized and participation was local,” Hinze said. “The event on July 26 at Cardiff State Beach did not make similar efforts [and] didn’t appear to be locally-organized.”
At a July 28 community forum, Sheriff’s Captain Herbert Taft, Encinitas’ top lawman, responded to a constituent’s question about enforcing health regulations in public gatherings — specifically, the July 26 Cardiff gathering — “that are endangering public safety.”
“We’re trying to balance people’s right of free speech, being able to protest, versus what the governor’s order is, and it’s a difficult position that law enforcement is put in,” Taft said. “We can’t pick and choose which protests are okay and which ones are not.”
“We had a very peaceful group out at Cardiff Kook for a whole week,” he said. “Sure, a lot of them had on masks, but they weren’t social distancing. Some didn’t have on a mask. Were we supposed to take the same action with them as we take against this group over here? [Violations at the Kook gatherings] seemed to be okay for most people.”
Mali Woods-Drake, who organized the June 5 protest, said deputies didn’t talk to her about masks or social distancing and didn’t cite her.
While she was “really upset” to see the Cardiff protestors not paying COVID-19 guidelines more heed, “I believe in the Constitution for everyone,” she said.
Neither Feucht nor Wooten responded to a request for comment.