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L.A. County allows churches to meet indoors after recent court rulings

Pastor J. Edgar Boyd films a "fireside chat" at First A.M.E church in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 9, 2020.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County officials have lifted a ban on indoor religious services after a series of court rulings involving houses of worship that argued that the pandemic-related restrictions violate religious freedoms.

While county churches are again permitted to hold indoor services under the new policy, announced Saturday, they must still comply with other restrictions, such as social distancing and mask wearing.

The loosened public health guidelines come amid surging coronavirus infection rates and hospitalizations and as some churches continue to defy public health orders.

County officials, who had issued the order blocking indoor services early in the pandemic, continue to urge houses of worship not to meet indoors because it will increase congregants’ chances of contracting the coronavirus. The vast majority of churches have complied, but some have not.

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“Los Angeles County is experiencing an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and premature deaths,” county officials said in a statement. “The county’s hospitals and ICUs are full and must care for approximately 200 new COVID-19 patients a day. The current status of healthcare capacity in the county is dire.”

The reversal comes after a series of rulings by courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court. All involve faith organizations claiming that public health orders infringe on their constitutionally protected right of freedom of religion.

The Supreme Court in late November, in a pair of 5-4 orders, ruled in a case about New York’s restrictions on houses of worship that states could not place more stringent checks on religious organizations than they do on businesses and other places where large gatherings occur.

This month, a Kern County judge, citing the Supreme Court decision, declared that restrictions on religious services in California are unconstitutional. He barred the state, L.A. County and several other counties and cities from enforcing any prohibition on indoor religious services.

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L.A. County officials insist that the public health orders are appropriate. They are intended to keep people home and among their households as much as possible but will not work “unless individual residents and businesses take personal responsibility to implement these very necessary infection-control precautions in their daily routines,” the county statement said.

Although houses of worship can meet indoors, staff and attendees must follow measures to protect themselves and the public. Under the county’s public health order, staff and visitors must wear face coverings at all times and maintain a distance of at least six feet from anyone outside their households. Houses of worship must conduct screenings before visitors enter and disinfect worship spaces between services.

Singing is allowed but “strongly discouraged,” public health officials said, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the suspension of singing, chanting and shouting, especially when indoors.

Drinking from a common cup or eating from the same piece of bread is not allowed under the county’s order. Communion must be conducted outdoors, with congregants staying six feet apart and immediately replacing their face coverings afterward, health officials said.

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“This protocol does not obligate places of worship to resume any in-person activity,” county public health officials said in the guidance released Saturday. “Further, it is strongly recommended that places of worship continue to facilitate outdoor or remote services and other related activities for all attendees.”

Supreme Court told judges in California to take another look at the state’s rules banning most indoor worship services because of the coronavirus.

Across Southern California, conservative Christian churches have been among the most defiant of county and state public health orders.

In San Bernardino County, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills has continued to hold indoor worship services despite the prohibition. Ventura County officials in August sued Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks after it continued to meet indoors.

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“Singing, hugging, no masks,” Senior Pastor Rob McCoy said, describing the services.

An associate pastor at Water of Life Community Church dies of COVID-19 weeks after the church resumed indoor worship despite state restrictions.

That open defiance has led to lawsuits in L.A. County as well. In August, the county sued Grace Community Church in Sun Valley for its open defiance of the public health order. Since July, the church has held services attended by thousands, many of whom do not wear masks or maintain distance from other attendees. Despite a judge’s order not to meet indoors, the church continued to do. A contempt hearing is scheduled for Jan. 15.

Sun Valley, a primarily Latino neighborhood, has among the highest coronavirus case rates in the county, according to data from the health department. The case rate among Sun Valley residents has increased tenfold since the beginning of October.

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Pastors at Grace Community Church did not respond Monday to emails or messages on social media requesting comment.

Pastor John MacArthur has openly repudiated COVID-19 guidance, declaring in an August sermon that “there is no pandemic.” MacArthur has repeatedly compared the coronavirus to influenza and has parroted conspiracy theories pushed by conservative news websites.

Times staff writers Maura Dolan and David Savage and research librarian Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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