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Evangelists spreading the gospel at Sonoma County courthouse

Members of the Victory Outreach Church, Victoria Drown, center and Charrise Johansen, right, pray with Denise Lavelle of Santa Rosa at the Hall of Justice in Santa Rosa on Monday morning Feb. 4, 2013.

(Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 6:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 6:01 p.m.

There's a higher power these days at the Sonoma County Courthouse.

For the past month, evangelists from a local Pentecostal Christian church have flocked to the criminal justice center, spreading the gospel and praying with defendants before they see the judge.

The group from Victory Outreach Church raised eyebrows Monday as its members, some of whom are former convicts who have embraced religion, walked a long line of potential jurors, distributing pamphlets and a bit of fire and brimstone.

Their public proselytizing has included religious rituals such as the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues.

"I wonder how they'd react if I told them I was an atheist," said one of the captive jurors, who didn't give his name. "I choose to keep my beliefs a little more private than that."

Superior Court security officials report no problems with the born-again group aside from having to ask them to lower the volume of their prayers.

Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau said they are entitled to say anything they want outside the building as long as it doesn't interfere with operations.

But their free-speech rights don't extend to inside the courthouse, he said.

Opinions were mixed about whether the practice is appropriate for a government facility.

Santa Rosa attorney Chris Andrian said the courthouse has always been viewed as a secular, nonreligious place. Seeing people huddled in prayer circles in the hallways was "unnerving," he said.

"I respect their right to do it," he said. "I just don't know if it's the right place."

Another Santa Rosa attorney, Jonathan Steele, said the activity doesn't seem to violate Constitutional provisions for the separation of church and state because it isn't being initiated by the courts.

Still others said it's more of a minor inconvenience than anything else. "They are well-intentioned but annoying," Santa Rosa attorney Jack Montgomery said.

Leaders of the 400-member congregation on Sebastopol Road said all they want to do is bring hope to people caught up in the legal system at a time of lingering unemployment and despair.

Pastor Jose Guadarrama said volunteers fan out Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings to tell people they can overcome their problems.

"It's just an open door for us to connect with them," he said. "I think the presence of the church needs to be felt in this place."

Some of the volunteers have been through it themselves. On Monday, men and women from the church's rehabilitation program made the rounds.

One of them was Victoria Drown, 26, of Santa Rosa, who said she was addicted to meth for 11 years and has spent time behind bars.

She said she turned her life around 17 months ago when she found the church. Now, she is off drugs and attending Santa Rosa Junior College, she said.

She walked the courthouse Monday, passing out fliers and offering prayers. She raised her arms over the head of a woman waiting in the jury line before huddling with another woman who had come to file legal papers.

"She just wanted to bless me and pray for my family," said Denise Lavelle of Santa Rosa. "I'm a believer, so I accept prayer."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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