These SoCal Churches Are Holding Drive-In Easter Sunday Services
Though many public health officials warn against drive-in church gatherings, Easter Sunday services are still scheduled at a smattering of congregations around Southern California.
In Santa Ana, parishioners plan to meet in the parking lot of an office complex for a service led by Rev. Robert A. Schuller, and listen to him — with windows closed — through an FM radio stream.
"They can wave to each other, feel connected and not like they're all alone by themselves in their house," Schuller said.
In San Bernardino County, Pastor Jerel Hagerman's church will hold drive-in services on Easter Sunday, as it has for the past several weeks. It's a loud affair at Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel in Yucca Valley, with Hagerman's sermon blasted through loudspeakers.
"When I say 'amen' everybody's honking their horns," Hagerman said. "I have a joke for that: We call it a blast."
Hagerman said he knows that at least two other churches in San Bernardino County are also holding drive-in Easter services. But they are in the clear minority.
In recent weeks, many temples, mosques and churches have pivoted to virtual services, following orders that banned non-household gatherings and allowed outings only for the essentials such as groceries.
The communal set-up in houses of worship made social distancing six feet apart almost impossible. But a few church leaders, even as they've relented on holding in-person events, insist in-car services fill an essential need for the faithful and are safe because people remain in their vehicles.
"You go to Home Depot, Costco, Walmart," Hagerman said. "How many cars are in the parking lot parked right next to each other and people are getting out?"
The debate played out in San Bernardino County this week, starting Tuesday when the public health officer there issued an order prohibiting drive-in church services.
Religious leaders such as Hagerman complained to the county, and by Wednesday afternoon, the board of supervisors had overruled the health officer, saying that churches could hold in-car services for Easter, said county spokesman David Wert.
Wert said officials concluded that they had not given churches enough notice to cancel drive-in services. They were also impressed, Wert said, to hear about the social distancing precautions some churches have taken, and may actually ease their restriction on in-car events as early as this week.
But officials will have to balance that with their nervousness over large gatherings.
"We really have cautioned the churches to try to make sure that people stay in their cars and don't pass candy or other gifts from car-to-car because they could spread the illness," Wert said.
The Center for American Liberty, a religious rights advocacy group, sent a letter to San Bernardino County officials Wednesday evening threatening legal action, but Wert said that county supervisors had already removed the drive-in restriction hours earlier.
Here is what other counties say about drive-in services:
Los Angeles County: A county spokesman shared a statement from Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis, shared via e-mail: "We had heard that some faith-based groups were planning gatherings of people in their cars. We know that this is in an effort to safely be together, but we also asked that, for now, they please cancel any such gatherings — whether in person or with everyone in their car. Right now, it is not safe to do so and this activity is prohibited in the Safer at Home Order."
Orange County: Spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in an e-mail: "We haven't put out any guidance specific to churches. At this time, Orange County is following guidance from the Governor regarding essential businesses and social distancing. If churches can comply with social distancing requirements, they can hold services. Our understanding is most have chosen to hold virtual services at this time."
Ventura County: Spokeswoman Ashley Bautista told LAist: "If people are coming together and the windows are closed, and they're just listening to the [church service on the] radio, and it's a comfort to see the person in the car next to you, that's not banned. But the recommendation here is to stay home as much as possible. Or if you do go out to get fresh air, that you are just with members of your household."
Riverside County: Spokesman John Welsh told LAist: "We know that some churches have been participating or holding these 'drive-through' services. Riverside County will permit drive up services for this weekend only. Having said that, though, the public health order does still remain, and we are prohibiting these activities for the remainder of the month."
Julia Paskin contributed to this report.