Public Health Order

Chula Vista Church Under Scrutiny for Potential Social Distancing Violations

Chula Vista police have responded to citizen concerns about not following social distancing protocols but have not issued any citations against the church

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Social media video shows a Chula Vista church potentially violating the county's public health order but the church has not received any citations from law enforcement.

Questions about the church's practices were raised by the daughter of an elderly member in attendance concerned about her wellbeing.

Video on Hilltop Tabernacle’s YouTube page, at times, shows at least seven church members on the pulpit as Pastor Joel Buxton delivers a fiery sermon. The video is dated May 10, about nearly six weeks into a county order that prohibits gatherings of any kind.

The church members do not appear to be socially distanced and are not wearing facial protection.

At times, you can see others in attendance, but the camera angle makes it difficult to determine how far apart they are. It's not clear how many people are in attendance.

Video of recent services appear to show members not social distancing. NBC 7's Artie Ojeda has more.

NBC 7 San Diego left phone messages and an in-person message with an office worker at Hilltop Tabernacle Church but the church has not responded to comment on possible public health order violations.

Chula Vista Police said they were contacted by a citizen regarding potential COVID-19 related violations at the church.

The main concern has been over the church holding service in the parking lot while attendees stay in their car, according to a police spokesperson. Officers responded twice but verified attendees were six feet apart and no citations were issued.

On May 10, the day the video in question is posted, a police supervisor responded to the church regarding patrons not wearing masks or social distancing while inside the church. However, the officer arrived after the service and was unable to verify any violations. No citations were issued.

“The pastor was educated and informed on the need to have masks/practice social distancing,” said Lt. Dan Peak, in an email.

The scrutiny over the church comes as other churches across the nation have started to sue states and local jurisdictions for violating 1st Amendment rights to assemble and worship.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has issued guidelines that only allow for online streaming of faith-based services.

Attorney Dean Broyles, who is not connected to Hilltop Tabernacle,  represents a church in Lodi suing Newsom. He said the state has criminalized religious assembly with “no end in sight.”

“Churches are definitely being treated differently, and worse, kind of like second-class citizens,” said Broyles.

Broyles said health concerns are legitimate but if churches follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines, patrons are safer than they are at many big box stores.

“I would encourage them to meet, but advise them, under current state orders, they’re engaging in what I would call ‘Christian principled civil disobedience.' In other words, there could be a price to pay for their decision to obey God over man,” said Broyles.

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