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L.A. church to host indoor conference of 3,000 attendees, despite public health order

A group of people near the welcome sign at Grace Community Church walking inside the house of worship
Grace Community Church attendees make their way to Sunday service in Sun Valley in September. The church has held indoor morning services since late July in defiance of L.A. County public health orders.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Escalating its defiance of Los Angeles County public health orders, an evangelical megachurch in Sun Valley is gearing up to host an indoor conference expected to draw thousands of men from across the country in what officials fear could become a potential superspreader event.

Grace Community Church, whose pastor has preached for the last six months to his congregation of mostly unmasked members that the pandemic is a hoax, is expected to draw at least 3,000 people to its sprawling campus on Roscoe Boulevard from March 3 to 5. The Shepherds’ Conference includes speakers who will present in the church, which holds about 3,000, and in smaller sessions throughout the church complex.

A few weeks after last year’s conference, two older men from Washington who attended the event — one of them a 90-year-old pastor — died of complications from COVID-19, according to family members and news reports by Slavic Sacramento, a daily Russian-language news site in California. It’s not known where the men contracted the virus or whether it was connected to the event.

John MacArthur, the longtime pastor for Grace Community Church, said in an April podcast interview that the pastor was the “only person that we know of that came out of the Shepherds’ Conference and had that virus and ultimately died.”

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Shepherds’ Conference organizers did not respond to multiple emails and calls requesting an interview or comment regarding what protocols they’ll have in place to protect attendees from the coronavirus at this year’s conference.

Some attendees for this year’s conference are coming on scholarship and stay with local families. Others will stay at hotels offering a conference rate in Burbank, Van Nuys and Valencia, according to the conference website. The conference typically draws men from across the world, but President Biden’s recent travel restrictions would probably bar attendance for anyone traveling from South Africa, Brazil and several European countries.

In a rebuke to Newsom, Supreme Court says California’s ban on indoor worship violates the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

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Public health officials have expressed concern that the conference could pose a hazard to the region. The church is located in an area that continues to have among the highest case rates of COVID-19 within the county, and neighbors have held protests after Sunday services, pleading with churchgoers to wear masks.

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Though the Supreme Court recently ruled that indoor services are permitted under certain restrictions, county health officials said the event doesn’t qualify as a worship service, and rather, is a conference and thus prohibited under the county’s public health order.

“The county is very concerned about the public health impacts of this event, especially as we continue to see the devastating impact of the recent surge, including high case numbers and high numbers of our residents sick in the hospital,” public health officials said in a statement.

When registering for the conference, which costs $399 to attend, each attendee signed a liability waiver that included: “I understand that each activity poses inherent risks of exposure to and/or contracting the COVID-19 virus,” and noted that “masks have limited capability as far as prevention of infection from contracting COVID-19,” according to an archived version of the conference webpage.

Masks are not required at the conference, but attendees are “encouraged” to wear them, and the church will provide them if attendees ask, according to the waiver. Hand sanitizer will be provided, and frequent hand washing is encouraged, according to the waiver.

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In a recent sermon, MacArthur thanked the Supreme Court, saying the ruling allows attendees to stay at area hotels. “We weren’t sure about hotels because they’re not able to be open unless it’s essential. Thank you, Supreme Court. The Hotel association says, ‘Hey, the Supreme Court says you’re essential; all those hotels are available.’”

The church’s plan to continue with the conference is not surprising. In August, the county sued Grace after the church started holding indoor worship services, and the two have been in a legal battle since.

Throughout much of last year, MacArthur repeatedly said no one on his staff or in the church had gotten sick with COVID-19. But the claim is contradicted by public health officials.

Thousands of maskless congregants gather weekly at Grace Community Church as Pastor John MacArthur ignores orders from a judge and public health officials.

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In October, the county’s Department of Public Health announced an outbreak of three confirmed cases at the church.

The theme of this year’s Shepherds’ Conference is “Reclaiming True Evangelicalism,” which MacArthur explained in a promotional video.

“It’s going to be polemical, it’s going to be passionate, it’s going to be practical, as we endeavor to reclaim true evangelicalism,” MacArthur said. “I want to encourage you, that this is going to be a conference of monumental significance.”


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