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L.A. County sues church for violating COVID-19 orders with indoor worship services

Map shows the location of of Grace Community Church in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

A church that has gained national attention in recent weeks for repeatedly defying state and county orders by holding indoor services is the subject of a countersuit filed Thursday by Los Angeles County.

The suit was filed in L.A. County Superior Court against Grace Community Church and Pastor John MacArthur for violating the county health officer’s order, which in mid-July prohibited indoor operations in various sectors, including places of worship.

Hours earlier, lawyers representing MacArthur and the church had filed suit against L.A. County public health officials along with Gov. Gavin Newsom, Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and other California health officials.

Photos: Christian faithful have been gathering, raising their hands skyward and, for some, stepping into the cool Pacific to be baptized.

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According to the county’s lawsuit, the church in Sun Valley started holding indoor services on July 26. It cites a “Tucker Carlson Tonight” segment on Fox News in which MacArthur questions the validity of California’s coronavirus case and death counts and downplays the COVID-19 mortality rate — the number of deaths divided by the total population.

“Last Sunday, 3,000 of them [parishioners] came back,” MacArthur said, “and they rejoiced and they hugged each other and they didn’t wear masks and they sang songs.”

In the weeks since, the county has instructed the church to cease indoor services. But the church has ignored such demands. On Sunday, MacArthur welcomed worshipers to “the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.”

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.

“The county took this action reluctantly, after working with the church for several weeks in hopes of gaining voluntary compliance with the Health Officer Orders, which allow for religious services to be held outdoors in order to slow the spread of a deadly and highly contagious virus,” the county said in a statement.

MacArthur thinks the state’s current order is a violation of people’s 1st Amendment rights.

“The government can’t intrude on worship,” he told Carlson.

“Community Church decided that it would no longer sit by and watch its congregants and their children suffer from an absence of religious worship and instruction,” the church’s lawsuit states.

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In an interview with CNN, MacArthur said it was not his job to warn people of the dangers of congregating, adding that he has his own doubts about the true scope of the pandemic.

“Our people know life is being restricted in a way that is not constitutional and is burdensome,” he said.

The state has reported a recent decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations after surpassing 10,000 fatalities. But progress is dependent on people’s social behaviors, and much about the virus — like its long-term effects on survivors — is still unknown.

L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis previously implored places of worship to host only outdoor services and refrain from holding indoor events. In the absence of a vaccine or medical therapies, social distancing practices are one of the few weapons to combat the spread of the disease.

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Though he said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit specifically, Davis said at a news briefing Thursday that, generally speaking, “we start by using education as the primary step in gaining compliance.”

“However, when compliance is not achieved, we have to look at other tools at our disposal,” he said, adding that “we won’t be able to enforce our way out of this pandemic, and we need everyone doing their part.”

“We, as a county, are so grateful to those religious institutions that are adhering to the order and have found ways to worship” that do not put their congregations or communities at risk, he said.

Grace Community Church is not the only place of worship to defy county and state orders. On Tuesday, a judge declined to order the immediate closure of a church in Ventura County that had been holding indoor worship services.

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The county had asked that Rob McCoy, the pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park, be held in contempt of court and was seeking the court to direct the Sheriff’s Office to close the church. The county’s request to shut the church was denied, but a hearing on the contempt claim was scheduled for Aug. 21.

Times staff writer Luke Money contributed to this article.


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