Sonoma County church cited for public health order violations commits to continue services
A Santa Rosa-area church that received repeated warnings for holding indoor services with large numbers of mostly unmasked worshippers was fined this week for violating public health orders, becoming the first church hit with a county citation since regional stay-home orders took effect in March.
The senior pastor of Spring Hills Church in Fulton vowed Thursday to continue defying a county ban on indoor worship services and large gatherings, setting the stage for a showdown pitting religious freedom against public health.
Leaders at Spring Hills Church were warned by the county three times since September to discontinue indoor services, county officials said this week. A fourth complaint, filed Jan. 21 with the county permit department, resulted in a $100 fine after a code enforcement team visited the church and discovered several hundred people attending weekend services, gatherings that public officials fear could spread the coronavirus throughout the wider community.
“It was a large number of people, meeting indoors and without masks. It’s a pretty straightforward thing. Clearly in excess of the order,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s permit department.
Spring Hill’s senior pastor, Bret Avlakeotes, said he will continue to host indoor services despite the county enforcement action.
“We’re not trying to prove anything, just meet people’s need for God. If people are uncomfortable, don’t come,” said Avlakeotes, who founded the church with his wife, Eve, in 1992. “We’ve gotten the warnings, but it’s kind of like do I listen to God and meet people’s spiritual needs as a pastor and church and listen to God and follow scripture, assemble of our own free will? Or is the state God?”
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Board of Supervisors, was aghast at learning about what appeared to be a rogue church devoted to continuing services, lamenting that it could inspire others to follow suit, endangering the broader Sonoma County community.
“It’s appalling and also heartbreaking. Jesus taught us to take care of the most vulnerable among us and this puts the most vulnerable residents in our community at risk,” said Hopkins, who had an Episcopalian upbringing. “The problem is recklessness and bad behavior is contagious. I don’t know why you would encourage people to take risks when you are a respected and trusted leader. It’s irresponsible.”
The county permit department received its first complaint that Spring Hills was violating social distancing measures on Sept. 18, leading staff to contact church leadership to educate them and provide a copy of the public health order, said Paul Gullixson, the county’s communications manager. A second complaint, which included evidence from the Christian church’s Facebook page that it was holding indoor services with large groups of maskless parishioners, was filed Nov. 12, he said. That prompted another warning.
On Dec. 7, a third complaint was filed ahead of a planned, midweek Christmas-related gathering, Gullixson said. Enforcement staff again contacted church leadership about the public health order’s ban on indoor services. However, an on-site visit by code enforcement staff on Dec. 9 found the church to be in compliance with the health order because it was celebrating Advent in a permitted outdoor gathering, Gullixson said.
Finally, on Jan. 21, the county’s health order violation tip line fielded a complaint that Spring Hills Church continued to host indoor services. That report resulted in code enforcement staff visiting the church Sunday morning, when they documented the prohibited activities.
“I can tell you that I doubt it was a surprise when Spring Hills was notified that it was out of compliance. There’s been no shortage of communications and coverage about the stay-home order and restrictions on indoor activities,” Gullixson said.
County officials said they’ve received complaints about three other houses of worship in unincorporated Sonoma County for violating health orders, including for hosting indoor events, and lacking face masks and social distancing. Those reports, which the county keeps anonymous, arrived via its hotline, email address or online “SoCo Report It” platform. Each led to in-person visits from code enforcement staff to issue warnings and provide education, Gullixson said.
“None of these sites were visited twice. One warning and/or discussion was all it took,” he said.
‘Our authority is in question’
The county’s permit department and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office share jurisdiction over enforcing the pandemic-related public health order in unincorporated parts of the county. Within city limits, police departments and city enforcement teams are tasked with overseeing their individual jurisdictions, with violation complaints logged with each city’s hotlines or online platforms.