Los Angeles County church appears ready to defy court order and hold indoor services

 <span class="copyright">(Los Angeles Times)</span>
(Los Angeles Times)

A Sun Valley church was planning to hold an indoor service Sunday in defiance of a court order.

In a decision issued late Saturday, the California Court of Appeal set aside a lower court order that would have allowed indoor services to take place at Grace Community Church.

The appellate court ruling temporarily halts indoor services and set a Sept. 4 hearing for complete arguments from both sides in the case.

In issuing the temporary stay, the court said the case involved "difficult questions of law" that could not be resolved in time for Sunday's church services, so the justices opted to leave the ban in place until the Sept. 4 hearing.

Local officials praised the ruling.

"Los Angeles County is pleased that the California Court of Appeal recognizes the vital importance of our Health Officer Orders in protecting the lives and health of our residents as we work to slow the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus," a county statement released Saturday said. "We will continue to work closely with all religious institutions, including Grace Community Church, to make sure their congregants are protected and provided with accurate information about worshiping safely during this phase of the pandemic."

Pastor John MacArthur indicated, however, he intended to hold an indoor service Sunday in spite of the order. The church's website listed a service scheduled for 10:30 a.m., led by MacArthur.

On Friday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant had denied almost all of the Los Angeles County's reasons for requesting a temporary restraining order against the church. He agreed that it was the county's burden to show "why they should be permitted to infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of churches to freely exercise religion."

Chalfant ruled that the Sun Valley megachurch could hold indoor services if attendees wore masks and stayed at least six feet apart.

Grace church officials could not be reached for comment about the appellate court's emergency stay. But constitutional law attorney Jenna Ellis said on Twitter that county officials were using "scare tactics" by saying Chalfant's ruling would allow all churches to resume indoor services, which would increase the spread of COVID-19.

In filing the appeal, officials said "Los Angeles County's first and only objective is to save lives and protect the health of our residents and communities. We will continue to work through the legal system to ensure that the Health Officer Orders are upheld, as these are the best tools we currently have to slow the spread of this lethal virus."

Last week, the church and county officials filed dueling lawsuits over health orders banning houses of worship from holding indoor services during the coronavirus crisis.

MacArthur brought a complaint Wednesday against Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Mayor Eric Garcetti and county health officials, alleging they have shown unconstitutional favoritism in the

enforcement of coronavirus regulations, to the detriment of churches.

Grace Community Church closed its doors in mid-March. After trying unsuccessfully to negotiate with the county, it reopened its doors in July. The church said close to 7,000 people attended last Sunday's service. State and county health orders currently only allow churches to hold services outdoors, with all worshippers wearing masks and keeping a safe physical distance.