Los Angeles church can hold indoor services, judge says

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge on Friday allowed a Los Angeles church to hold indoor services despite coronavirus health orders as long as it practices safety measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

Los Angeles County had sought a court order barring Grace Community Church from holding the services, arguing that they were an immediate health threat.

But Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant restricted his order to a requirement that worshipers wear masks and practice social distancing. He also set a September hearing on the county’s request for a preliminary injunction barring the church from holding indoor services at its building in the Sun Valley neighborhood or anywhere else in the state.

“I am very grateful the court has allowed us to meet inside and we are happy for a few weeks to comply and respect what the judge has asked of us,” Pastor John MacArthur said in a statement. “This vindicates our desire to stay open and serve our people.”

“We will stand firm to protect our church against unreasonable, unconstitutional restrictions,” he said.

MacArthur has been holding services in recent weeks attended by throngs of worshipers in defiance of state and county limits on indoor gatherings. Those health orders aim to reduce the spread of COVID-19 but Grace and a few other churches consider them excessive and assaults on freedom of religion.

The church sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials this week and Los Angeles County counter-sued.

“Los Angeles County’s first and only objective is to save lives and protect the health of our residents and communities,” county officials said in a statement, adding that “we will continue to work through the legal system to ensure that the health officer orders are upheld, as these are the best tools we currently have to slow the spread of this lethal virus.”

California this week became the first state to surpass 600,000 coronavirus cases.

Across the country the vast majority of churches have cooperated with health authorities and successfully protected their congregations. Yet from the earliest phases of the pandemic, and continuing to this day, some worship services and other religious activities have been identified as sources of local outbreaks.

A few churches have been openly defiant, including one in California’s Ventura County that held indoor worship services Sunday despite a judge’s temporary restraining order.

Pastor Rob McCoy of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park had vowed to continue in-person services even though the order cited “an immediate threat to public health and safety.”

This week, a different judge declined a county request to order the immediate closure of the church.

Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings in a suit filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California.

Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected on July 24 an appeal by a rural Nevada church in a 5-4 decision joined by Chief Justice John Roberts but sharply criticized in three separate conservative dissents.