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Judge bars defiant Los Angeles megachurch from holding indoor services

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley draws thousands of worshipers, most of whom do not wear masks or socially distance.
Grace Community Church in Sun Valley draws thousands of worshipers, most of whom do not wear masks or socially distance.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A megachurch that has defied Los Angeles County’s pandemic health orders must stop holding Sunday worship services indoors, under a judge’s ruling Thursday.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff sided with public health officials, who took legal action last month to enforce health orders against Grace Community Church, an evangelical congregation in Sun Valley that has been holding Sunday worship services indoors since July 26.

“While the court is mindful that there is no substitute for indoor worship in the ‘spiritual refuge’ of a sanctuary, the court cannot ignore the County Health Order does not dictate a ban on worship,” Beckloff wrote in his decision granting the county’s request for a preliminary injunction.
The order remains in effect until the issue is resolved.

The order allows outdoor services — which were already permitted under the county’s public health order — only if the church follows physical distancing and face covering measures.

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The order also requires the church to allow county workers to enter its property to post the order and verify the church is in compliance. The church has not allowed county public health workers to view its indoor services, according to court records.

Church officials, led by longtime leader Pastor John MacArthur, have also resisted orders requiring the congregation of thousands to wear face coverings and socially distance. MacArthur has expressed deep skepticism that there is a COVID-19 pandemic.

The church will appeal the decision, according to attorney Charles LiMandri, who said the court didn’t properly consider evidence that shows COVID-19 cases declining.

LiMandri, who works for the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm that takes religious liberty cases, said the appeal would ultimately vindicate the church’s right to the free exercise of religion. The court, he said, did not give “adequate consideration to the fact that churches have been treated as second-class citizens compared to the tens of thousands of protesters,” said LiMandri, referencing the protests this summer that largely took place outside.

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County officials said in a statement that they went to court “only after significant efforts to work with the leaders of Grace Community Church to protect public health” were unsuccessful.

“Religious services are central to many of our residents’ lives, especially in these trying times, and services have been allowed to be held online and outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings, and they may continue to do so,” officials said in a statement. “The issue is a reminder that 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.”


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