LOS ANGELES (AP) — A megachurch that defied a ban on indoor worship designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus was ordered Thursday to immediately halt such services.
Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff issued a preliminary injunction repeatedly sought by Los Angeles County health officials, who argued that Grace Community Church was putting people at risk of COVID-19 infection by staging indoor services with throngs of people who didn't use masks or practice social distancing.
Since late July, the Sun Valley evangelical church had ignored the county health order that permitted only online or outdoor services with proper safety measures.
“We will obey God rather than men. We’re going to be faithful to our Lord,” MacArthur told his congregants in a July 31 video. “We’re going to leave the results to Him.”
MacArthur and the church’s elders say Grace Community Church’s actions are founded on biblical principles. According to a statement, church leaders believe that the government is charged with protecting civic order and well-being. But the government can’t dictate “the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.”
Beckloff sided with the county's argument that the services were an immediate threat to public health and safety.
The "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," the ruling said.
Grace and a few other churches argued that the public health order was excessive and an assault on freedom of religion.
However, Beckloff ruled that the order "does not dictate a ban on worship."
The county and the church have sued each other over the issue and the injunction remains in place until the matter is resolved.
The church also must allow county health workers onto its property to verify that it is complying with the order.
A message seeking comment from church officials wasn't immediately returned.
"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," a county statement said. "The issue is a reminder that we must all work together and modify our activities to contain and slow this virus."
Across the country the vast majority of churches have cooperated with health authorities. Yet from the earliest phases of the pandemic, some worship services and other religious activities have been identified as sources of local outbreaks.
A few churches have been openly defiant of health orders and several have sued but in general, courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have upheld COVID-19-based restrictions on religious gatherings.