LOS ANGELES — A California appeals court on Saturday overturned a temporary injunction that prohibited Los Angeles County from enforcing an order prohibiting indoor church services, a day after a trial judge allowed renowned pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church to hold gatherings in the building’s sanctuary. The church proceeded with services as usual despite the order.
“At this very preliminary stage in this litigation, the County has demonstrated a likelihood that it will prevail on the merits of enforcing its July 18, 2020 health order. The County’s health order is presumed to be constitutional unless its ‘unconstitutionality clearly, positively and unmistakably appears,'” wrote presiding justice Elwood Lui, along with judges Victoria Chavez and Brian Hoffstadt for the Second District, Division Two.
“Given the preliminary state of the evidentiary record as well as the weight of precedent favoring the enforcement of COVID-19-related restrictions, the presumption that the health order’s ‘indoor religious services’ provision is valid has yet to be rebutted,” they stated.
The court said that while the church may not hold services indoors under the County order, it is free to hold them outside.
The panel opined:
“Were we to not issue a stay of the trial court’s order, the County would be barred from enforcing that provision and the Church would be able to conduct its services indoors, even though indoor church services have been a ‘source of outbreak’ of COVID-19 due to the heightened risk of transmission when people are ‘in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time’ and they are ‘singing, shouting and chanting,’ risks that ‘physical distancing and wearing a mask’ ‘do not eliminate.'”
Therefore, due to “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,” it said.
Los Angeles County issued a press release likewise reiterating that outdoor services are permissible while indoor gatherings are not.
“Los Angeles County is 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,” it stated.
“Outdoor religious observances are permitted; participants must wear cloth face coverings and maintain six feet of distance from each other unless they live in the same household.”
According to reports and online videos, Grace Community Church held indoor services anyway on Sunday out its stance that the government does not have jurisdiction over matters of the Church.
“[W]e’re not meeting because want to be rebellious,” MacArthur stated from the pulpit, according to the Washington Times. “We’re meeting because our Lord has commanded us to come together and worship Him.”
“They were going to be asking us to do two things, social distance and wear masks,” he explained of Friday’s initial ruling. “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 [county]. They went to the appellate court Saturday late, and had that order removed.”
Attendees did not wear masks during the service, but some did social distance as evidenced by video footage of a children’s choir that performed standing feet apart from each other.
As previously reported, MacArthur and Grace Community Church, with the assistance of the Thomas More Society, filed suit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, officials with the Los Angeles County Health Department and others last week to challenge the prohibition on indoor church services, over which he is being threatened with fines and/or jail time.
“Defendants’ mandates are not ‘narrowly tailored’ to further any compelling governmental interest,” the lawsuit stated. “Defendants have granted numerous special exemptions to their bans on public gatherings and conduct, including for purportedly ‘essential’ businesses and activities, including, for example, cannabis dispensaries, abortion and other medical providers, daycare and childcare, and shopping.”
“Defendants have also provided a de facto exemption for protests against the unjust death of George Floyd, without extending the same solicitude to Plaintiffs’ religious gatherings,” it argued. “Since these gatherings may be permitted, there can be no doubt that Defendants must also permit Plaintiffs to engage in religious activities and services.”
The County issued MacArthur and Grace Community Church a cease and desist letter on July 29, advising that MacArthur could be subject to a fine “of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to 90 days” for continuing to hold indoor church services. It noted that “[e]ach day that you conduct indoor services is a separate offense.”
“The County requests that you immediately cease holding indoor worship services or other indoor gatherings, and adhere to the health officer order directives governing activities at houses of worship,” the letter, written by attorney Jason Tokoro of the law firm Miller Barondess, LLP, states. “If you or Grace Community Church continue to hold indoor services in violation of the law, you are subject to criminal and civil liability.”
Grace Community Church had complied with the initial prohibition on indoor services in the spring because, according to a statement, leadership did not know at that time “the true severity of the virus” and they believe it is “legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.”
But because “[i]t is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared” and cancellations of 2021 public events signaled that shutdowns would drag out into next year, the church felt that California had “force[d] churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials.”
A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 4.