Los Angeles County won a preliminary injunction Thursday to stop Grace Community Church from holding indoor services, setting up a Sunday showdown at the evangelical megachurch.
Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled that the county health order prohibiting indoor worship “does not dictate a ban on worship,” allowing services to take place outdoors, on the internet, “and in any other manner that is not indoors with a large gathering of people.”
“Like the Court of Appeal when considering the stay, the court finds the balance of harm tips in favor of the County,” said the judge in his 18-page decision. “The potential consequences of community spread of COVID-19 and 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.”
The county has fought for a court order since the Sun Valley church reopened July 26 for services in its sanctuary, which holds 3,500 people. The church also offers online worship.
Thomas More Society special counsel Charles LiMandri, who represents Grace, said the church would appeal “to ultimately vindicate our clients’ constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.”
He argued that the court should have applied strict scrutiny to its analysis and considered the evidence that “the current number of people with serious COVID-19 symptoms no longer justifies a shuttering of the churches.”
“Nor do we believe that the court gave adequate consideration to the fact that churches have been treated as second-class citizens compared to the tens of thousands of protestors,” said Mr. LiMandri. “More than ever, California’s churches are essential.”
California has the toughest pandemic restrictions in the nation, according to an Aug. 11 WalletHub analysis, even though new cases have dropped 34% and deaths have fallen by 23% in the last two weeks, according to the New York Times COVID-19 map.
County officials applauded the court’s ruling, saying “we must all work together and modify our activities to contain and slow this virus, which has caused the death of more than 6,000 Los Angeles County residents and has made thousands of others gravely ill.”
The California Department of Public Health has recorded 742,865 cases and 13,978 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.
“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,” said the county in a statement.
Grace Pastor John MacArthur called the ruling “inexplicable,” saying that the scale should always tip in favor of liberty, especially for churches.”