Los Angeles megachurch Grace Community held indoor services Sunday in defiance of a local public-health order, just hours after an appeals court blocked a ruling that would have allowed the evangelical services to go forward legally.
Pastor John MacArthur, who has led the congregation in Sun Valley for 50 years, told worshipers who packed the 3,500-seat sanctuary that “the powers of the city were not happy” about the church’s decision to file a lawsuit Friday challenging the novel coronavirus mandates.
“They don’t want us to meet, that’s obvious,” Mr. MacArthur said from the pulpit. “They’re not willing to work with us. They just want to shut us down. But we’re here to bring honor to the Lord.”
He said it was “hard to figure out exactly what the city is trying to do with us and to us,” but insisted “we’re not meeting because want to be rebellious, we’re meeting because our Lord has commanded us to come together and worship Him.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant rejected Friday Los Angeles County’s request for a temporary restraining order to stop the church from holding indoor worship, and the church agreed to have parishioners practice social distancing and wear facial coverings until the full hearing Sept. 4.
“They were going to be asking us to do two things, social distance and wear masks,” said Mr. MacArthur. “We agreed, [saying] look, we’ll comply for a few weeks. They asked that for three weeks. We’re not wanting to be defiant. We will do what is reasonable. That was not enough for the city. They went to the appellate court Saturday late, and had that order removed.”
The California Court of Appeal issued a stay of the judge’s order, ruling that the dangers of COVID-19 outweigh the right to hold services at the popular church, where Sunday attendance has in pre-pandemic years topped 8,000.
“As between the harm that flows from the heightened risk of transmitting COVID-19 (namely “serious illness and death”) and the harm that flows from having to conduct religious services outdoors instead of indoors, the balance at this early stage favors issuance of a stay,” said the court in its four-page order.
Mr. MacArthur said that the “good news is, you’re here, you’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks.”
“And it’s also good news that you’re not outside, because it’s very hot out there, so the Lord knew you needed to be inside and not masked,” he said.
The church also offers an outdoor tent, but the recent heat wave has made that option problematic. The high temperature forecast Sunday for the San Fernando Valley community was 94, with an excessive heat warning issued for the county.
The Supreme Court has ruled twice in favor of state authority to issue emergency orders in lawsuits by churches challenging coronavirus health restrictions, but the Grace lawsuit argued that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had discriminated against churches with his lax enforcement of public-health mandates on protests.
“Grace Community Church is doing exactly what they have for 63 years—holding church,” said Jenna Ellis, attorney with the Thomas More Society, which represents Grace. “They have tried to be reasonable and work with LA County, but the County would not accept anything short of shutting down the Church entirely.”
In a statement, Los Angeles County said it was “pleased that the California Court of Appeal recognizes the vital importance of our Health Officer Orders in protecting the lives and health of our residents as we work to slow the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.”
Under the county order, churches may conduct outdoor religious services, and participants “must wear cloth face coverings and maintain six feet of distance from each other unless they live in the same household.”
“We will continue to work closely with all religious institutions, including Grace Community Church, to make sure their congregants are protected and provided with accurate information about worshiping safely during this phase of the pandemic,” said the county on YubaNet.
The county issued a cease-and-desist order July 29 warning that the church would be subject to fines up to $1,000 and 90 days in prison for each indoor service.
“LA County showed clearly their discriminatory intent,” said Ms. Ellis in an email. “This isn’t about health. Pastor MacArthur simply held church, and the California and US constitutions protect his right to do that. He is rightly standing firm that church is essential.”