A judge Thursday issued a temporary restraining order directing a Sun Valley church to refrain from holding indoor church services, saying there’s an “immediate threat to public health and safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff also directed Grace Community Church to mandate that congregation members wear masks and practice physical distancing if the house of worship decides to hold outdoor services.
He additionally said church officials must allow county health officers onto the property to post notice of his order and to verify compliance with the county health order aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
“The court finds the county health order has a real and substantial relationship to public health and safety,” Beckloff wrote in the 22-page decision.
Beckloff said the “potential consequences of community spread of COVID-19 and concomitant risk of death to members of the community, associated and unassociated with the church, outweighs the harm that flows from the restriction on indoor worship caused by the county health order.”
Beckloff heard arguments on Los Angeles County’s motion for a preliminary injunction on Friday, then took the case under submission before ruling. Both he and Judge James Chalfant had collectively denied the county’s four previous bids for a temporary restraining order, but Beckloff said this time, the county had “demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits” of its claims.
“The county persuasively argues congregants of the church are not isolated amongst themselves, but circulate within the county outside of their times together in religious worship,” Beckloff wrote. “All citizens of the community therefore — even those who do not worship at the church — would be at risk of infection through community spread.”
Beckloff said the health order is not a ban on worship, but instead provides that it “must take place other than indoors.”
Reacting to the ruling, county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said the Department of Public Health is available to all businesses and institutions if they “need assistance with understanding how to comply with the health officer orders while continuing to offer permitted services to the community as safely as possible.”
“The sole purpose of the health officer orders is to protect the health and safety of our L.A. communities, and we thank everyone who has taken compliance with the orders seriously in order to protect their business, their employees and the public,” he said.
Church attorney Charles LiMandri said there will be an appeal.
“We are disappointed in the ruling on the preliminary injunction as the court did not apply the strict scrutiny analysis to the government order that we believe is required by the California Constitution and legal precedent,” he said. “The court also did not properly consider the medical and scientific evidence that the current number of people with serious COVID-19 symptoms no longer justifies a shuttering of the churches.”
Calling the ruling a “temporary setback,” lawyer Jenna Ellis, also on behalf of the church, said “we will continue to fight for Pastor (John) jMacArthur and Grace Community Church’s constitutionally protected right to hold church. While the judge did go out of his way to repeatedly state that he is not ruling on the merits, only a ruling at this very preliminary stage, Pastor MacArthur is still harmed because he has every right to hold church.”
The county sued Grace Community Church on Aug. 14 after it began holding indoor services on Sundays, seeking enforcement of local and state health orders that only allow the services to be conducted outside. The church has its own suit against the county that is awaiting trial in Burbank Superior Court.
In his argument Friday, attorney Amnon Siegel, on behalf of the county, said “religion doesn’t trump health and safety.”
The health orders are targeted at stopping the spread of the virus, said Siegel, who accused Pastor John MacArthur and church leaders of encouraging violations instead of urging their members to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Siegel said the temporary ban on indoor services was issued because coronavirus cases in the county spiked, but that it will be relaxed once it is safe.
“We need to take action to protect the community,” Siegel said. “This is not a close call, this is not a close question.”
But LiMandri argued that all of the relevant statistics show that deaths are down and that the infection rate is lower in California than in other states where churches are open.
“The coronavirus is dying out,” LiMandri said, while maintaining that the massive protests that came after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked the rise in cases, not people going to church.
“They are targeting the church, they don’t go after the protesters,” LiMandri said.
LiMandri also maintained that MacArthur was not being careless in holding indoor services at the church at 13248 Roscoe Blvd.
“He’s very concerned about the health and well-being of his congregation,” LiMandri said.
Jenna Ellis, another church lawyer, argued Friday that the indefinite nature of the heath order makes it too uncertain as to when indoor services can lawfully resume.
In his Aug. 14 ruling, Chalfant found that the church could hold services indoors if congregation members wore masks and practiced social distancing. The county appealed and Chalfant’s order was stayed the next day.
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