A California court rejected Friday efforts by Los Angeles County to require a popular megachurch to comply with pandemic orders, allowing the church to hold indoor services with singing and without attendance limits pending a resolution of the case.
Superior Court Judge James Chalfant denied the county’s request for a temporary restraining order against Grace Community Church after the church began holding indoor services July 26 in defiance of state and county rules aimed at combating the novel coronavirus, according to a press release from the Thomas More Society.
Attorney Jenna Ellis called it a “historic win,” tweeting that the court was the first in California “to recognize #churchisessential.”
The Thomas More Society, which represented the church, said the judge ruled “it is the County’s burden to show why it should be permitted to infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of churches to freely exercise religion, but also expressing safety concerns.”
At the same time, the church agreed to comply with mask-wearing and social-distancing rules before the full hearing scheduled for Sept. 4.
Grace Community Church Pastor John MacArthur said in a statement that “we are happy for a few weeks to comply and respect what the judge has asked of us because he is allowing us to meet.”
“This vindicates our desire to stay open and serve our people,” said Mr. MacArthur. “This also gives us an opportunity to show that we are not trying to be rebellious or unreasonable, but that we will stand firm to protect our church against unreasonable, unconstitutional restrictions.”
Ms. Ellis called it a “huge vindication for Pastor John and the Board of Elders at Grace Community Church, who have simply asked for their right to worship the Lord together in church to be acknowledged and protected.”
The church filed a lawsuit Thursday arguing that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had discriminated against religious institutions by taking a hard line on worshipers in his emergency orders, but not the thousands of protesters who took to the streets after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
At the start of Sunday’s service, Mr. MacArthur underscored the point by welcoming parishioners to “the Grace Community Church peaceful protest,” drawing thunderous applause.
Attorney Charles LiMandri called it a “great victory for all citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of religion.”
In its July 29 cease-and-desist letter, an attorney for Los Angeles County said that by “holding indoor services for hundreds of persons during this pandemic, you are placing the health and safety of not only the persons attending the service, but also the community at large at risk.”
The church, located in suburban Sun Valley, drew more than 6,000 worshipers at its most recent Sunday service.
Violations of the county order are subject to penalties of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail, and “[e]ach day that you conduct indoor services is a separate offense,” according to the cease-and-desist letter.