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Judge refuses to shut Ventura County church that has defied COVID-19 health order

Supporters and protesters gather outside Godspeak Calvary Chapel, whose pastor defied a court order and held indoor services.
Supporters and protesters gather outside Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park where Pastor Rob McCoy defied a court order and held indoor services Sunday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A judge on Tuesday declined to order the immediate closure of a Ventura County church that has been holding indoor worship services in defiance of coronavirus-related health orders and despite a court order barring it from doing so.

The county had asked Judge Vincent O’Neill to hold Rob McCoy, pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park, in contempt of court and direct the Sheriff’s Office to close the church.

O’Neill denied the county’s request to shut the church but scheduled a hearing on the contempt claim for Aug. 21.

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in the legal battle between the county and McCoy, a former Thousand Oaks City Council member who resigned his seat in April after Gov. Gavin Newsom deemed churches nonessential under health orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As many as 150 demonstrators gathered near Newbury Park’s Godspeak church, some supporting its defiance of a judge’s order, others denouncing the indoor services.

While outdoor or virtual services are permitted, Godspeak has held indoor services without masks or social distancing every Sunday since May 31.

Health officials have repeatedly warned that large gatherings, particularly those held indoors, heighten the risk of spreading the coronavirus — which as of Tuesday had infected a total of 8,740 Ventura County residents and killed 93.

Ventura County health authorities took Godspeak and McCoy to court last week, alleging that the church’s actions “will cause and continue to cause great and irreparable injury to the general public ... including hospitalizations and deaths, which in turn is likely to result in continued and further restrictions on businesses and other operations and activities.”

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McCoy, though, has said he’s being unfairly targeted.

“We would be the first to be masked and distanced, and willingly so, if this were meriting it, and it doesn’t. This isn’t a health issue; it’s an ideological issue,” he said.

This past weekend, minor scuffles broke out between protesters and supporters outside the church.

Ventura County is suing pastor Rob McCoy and Godspeak Calvary Chapel, which has hosted in-person, indoor services without masks or social distance since May 31.

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Ventura County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guasco granted a temporary restraining order against Godspeak and McCoy on Friday, forbidding the church’s indoor services and demanding compliance with state and local health orders.

That order will remain in effect until Aug. 31.

Tuesday’s hearing was held before O’Neill, not Guasco, after attorneys for the church filed a challenge to request that a different judge hear the matter.

Under California law, such a challenge can generally be made once without showing any cause.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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