Lawyers for a Sun Valley church argue in new court papers that a preliminary injunction issued by a judge last summer directing the house of worship to refrain from holding indoor church services to limit the spread of the coronavirus should be ended given two subsequent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court action comes as Los Angeles County will move to a less-restrictive level Monday that allows limited crowds at indoor restaurants, theme parks, zoos and museums. It wasn’t clear if the limits would be too restrictive for the types of services the church lawyers argued for.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff’s Sept 10 injunction 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.
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 (Los Angeles County) health order.”
In addition, an April 9 hearing is scheduled in Glendale Superior Court on whether the Roscoe Boulevard church and its pastor, John MacArthur, should be held in contempt for holding indoor services in alleged violation of Beckloff’s September court order.
But in their Feb. 19 court papers, lawyers for Grace Community Church note that in the first of two U.S. Supreme Court opinions, a Catholic diocese and a group of Jewish synagogues challenged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on churches and won.
Then, on Feb. 5, the high court struck down the indoor worship ban while allowing caps on attendance and a ban on singing, according to the Grace Community Church attorneys’ court papers.
“The Supreme Court opinions are binding and direct that the preliminary injunction in this action is void and should therefore be immediately vacated because it did not apply strict scrutiny to determine whether the county’s orders could be applied to the Grace Community Church,” according to the church’s attorneys’ court papers. “Thus, the church now moves to vacate the preliminary injunction and the order to show cause re: contempt.”
Grace Community Church attorneys also maintain in their court papers that Beckloff should have applied strict scrutiny, the highest standard of review a court can use to evaluate the constitutionality of governmental discrimination, when deciding whether to issue a preliminary injunction. They also argue that the Supreme Court rulings now overcome any argument in favor of maintaining the injunction.
“Judge Beckloff … did not apply strict scrutiny after concluding that Los Angeles County’s orders were generally applicable for grouping like-activities together,” the Grace Community Church lawyers state in their court papers. “Because Judge Beckloff adopted Los Angeles County’s proffered, but erroneous legal test in entering its preliminary injunction, the injunction is void and should be vacated.
The county sued Grace Community Church last 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 Glendale Superior Court.
Los Angeles County restaurants will again welcome customers indoors and movie theaters and fitness centers will be able to reopen, all at limited capacity, beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday when the county advances to a less-restrictive tier in the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”
County officials confirmed the move Friday, when the state met the threshold of administering 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in low-income communities across California that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
When it met that threshold, the state eased the requirements for counties to advance through the four tiers of the blueprint, which governs business restrictions based on the spread of COVID-19. The new requirements allow Los Angeles County — as well as neighboring Orange County — to move out of the most restrictive “purple” tier and into the “red” tier.
Under “red” tier guidelines announced by the Los Angeles County Thursday, indoor dining can resume at 25% of capacity. The county will require restaurants to have 8 feet of distance between all tables, which will be restricted to a maximum of six people from the same household. The rules also call for ventilation to be increased “to the maximum extent possible.”
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