A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Thursday, Sept. 10, granted the county’s request for an injunction prohibiting Grace Community Church in Sun Valley from holding indoor services in a ruling that emphasized the importance of following health orders to prevent the community spread of the coronavirus.
After hearing arguments Friday from attorneys for the county and the church, Judge Mitchell Beckloff ruled that Grace Community Church and its pastor, John MacArthur, are prohibited from conducting indoor worship services in violation of county health orders. The judge also ruled that the church must not conduct any outdoor worship services unless it fully complies with the county’s mandates relating to physical distancing and face coverings.
The megachurch has been holding services for at least five weeks in defiance of county and state orders that allow houses of worship to gather outdoors only with social distancing and face coverings. Its actions have led to a legal battle being watched by religious communities nationwide as they continue to limit in-person worship during the pandemic. A vast majority of congregations in Southern California have resorted to online-only worship in the face of restrictive state orders.
County grateful for ruling
County officials issued a statement Thursday saying they are grateful to the court for granting their request for a preliminary injunction and that they are looking forward to working with Grace Community Church to ensure compliance.
“We now look forward to working with church leaders on a plan to move services outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings, which will allow worshipers to gather for religious observances in a manner that is lower risk and consistent with public health directives,” the statement said. “This protects worshipers and the entire county community.”
Church officials did not respond to a request for comment.
County officials said violating a court order is a serious offense that can result in a variety of penalties, including being held in contempt. The church will have the option to appeal the decision.
The church’s attorneys, associated with the Thomas More Society, argued during Friday’s hearing that the congregation has been following current safety precautions such as distancing and wearing masks, that they have no reported cases of the virus, and that the church’s constitutional rights are being violated by the health order.
Attorney Jenna Ellis argued that the government’s powers are not absolute and that that people would never have liberty if public safety were to always outweigh liberty. Ellis also is a senior legal advisor for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The church’s attorneys also said the county was basing its mandates on “unsubstantiated opinion” that has no basis in facts.
During an Aug. 16 indoor church service that was held in defiance of an appellate court order and broadcast live online, MacArthur welcomed his congregants with these statements: “The good news is you’re here. You’re not distancing and you’re not wearing masks. It’s also good news that you’re not outside because it’s very hot out there. So the Lord knew you had to be inside and unmasked. He did us that gracious favor.”
The court’s ruling stated that it found the county’s health order “has a real and substantial relationship to public health and safety” and that given the number of cases and deaths in Los Angeles County, there is enough evidence to show the need to slow the spread of the virus.
Health order constitutional
The court also found that the county’s health order does not violate the U.S. or California constitutions because it doesn’t exclusively target houses of worship or religious practices, but rather limits in-person religious worship to outdoor gatherings. Also, the ruling states that the county’s health order applies not just to religious worship, but to all activities where people congregate indoors for long periods of time, such as lounges, nightclubs, bars, movie theaters, live performance theaters, concert venues, theme parks, indoor dining, museums, zoos, aquariums and festivals.
The court said that in this case, it found “the balance of harms tips in favor of the county.”
“The potential consequences of community spread of COVID-19 and the concomitant risk of death to members of the community — associated and unassociated with the church — outweighs the harm that flows from the restriction on indoor worship caused by the county health order.”
Source: Orange County Register