FRESN0, Ca – Administrative Bishops Dr. Sean S. O’Neal of the California-Nevada Church of God and Dr. Samuel Santana of Iglesia de Dios Region Suroeste petitioned California Governor Gavin Newsom for the inclusion of Pastoral Care as Essential Services on Friday, as it relates to public restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As leaders of more than 200 California churches and ministers with over 20,000 members, Dr. O’Neal and Dr. Santana are working jointly with the Pacific Justice Institute in asking Governor Newsom to allow clergy to perform essential services that are more in line with federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recommendations.
To be clear, Bishop O’Neal and Bishop Santana are not requesting the right to have public in-person religious assemblies reopened. At this time, it seems clear that in-person gatherings are still dangerous for the aged and those with certain underlying medical conditions. Rather, they are requesting a state-wide revision to include pastoral care, consistent with federal CISA guidelines which provide for clergy as essential support.
When Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-33-20, requiring the general population to shelter-in-place, exceptions were made for those employed in areas identified with the 16 federal critical infrastructure sectors. The Order of the State Public Health Officer provides, “I may designate additional sectors as critical in order to protect the health and well-being of all Californians.”
The Church of God believes that time has come. Though these orders rightly identify health and mental health workers as essential, ministers have not been deemed essential. Although this exclusion may be without malevolence, health officials have not accurately measured the contributions of the religious community. The church, and other religious institutions, are far more than public gatherings. The clergy provide spiritual and emotional help and comfort to those in distress. Since this plague has come to our state, the sick and dying – and their families – need the succor that medical technology cannot provide.
Like mental health professionals, clergy deals with people facing serious illness and end-of-life issues. Within the Christian tradition that is deeply rooted in American culture, clergy prays with such people; they provide spiritual counsel; they hear confession; they administer last rites. In many counties in California, the sick and dying who call for a pastor to speak with them are denied that opportunity and must face their condition alone due to the current orders. We are turned away, and people are denied their last wishes and rights, because clergy has not been deemed essential. If an exception is not granted, per county orders, ministers who perform these necessary services face prosecution are subject to incarceration if convicted. This has profound implications on the free exercise of religion.
The Administrative Bishops of the California-Nevada Church of God and Iglesia de Dios Region Suroeste are respectfully requesting Governor Newsom to reconsider his original stance, and include the work of clergy as essential support as an essential service – while exercising the proper care and prescribed safety precautions applicable to all health officials – effective immediately so that they may resume the spiritual and necessary function of caring for the suffering throughout California.