County Seeks Penalties vs. Sun Valley Church Over Indoor Services

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles County is asking a judge to impose penalties against a Sun Valley church that county health officials maintain has repeatedly violated public health and court orders needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

County officials said Grace Community Church has continued to hold large, indoor services, dramatically increasing the potential for COVID-19 transmission, despite the fact that most residents, businesses and institutions are following the health orders and many faith organizations have willingly moved their services outdoors.

Church attorney Jenna Ellis could not be immediately reached for comment.

Health officials continue to offer to share with the church educational awareness and practical guidance for conducting services outdoors in ways that prioritize the health of their congregation as well as the broader community, according to the county's statement. Officials did not state whether the penalties they were seeking are financial in nature.

A hearing was set for Thursday in downtown's L.A. County Superior Court.

On Saturday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the church must cease holding indoor services, but the church did so anyway on Sunday.

The appellate court ruling temporarily halted 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 involves “difficult questions of law'' that could not be resolved in time for Sunday's services, so the justices opted to leave the ban in place until the Sept. 4 hearing.

Local officials praised that 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.''

However, pastor John MacArthur held an indoor service Sunday in spite of the order.

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 is 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 wear masks and stay at least six feet apart.

The church and county officials had previously filed dueling lawsuits over health orders banning houses of worship from holding indoor services during the coronavirus crisis.

MacArthur brought a complaint 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, the doors reopened in July. The church said close to 7,000 people attend services there.

State and county health orders currently only allow churches to hold services outdoors, with all worshippers wearing masks and keeping a safe physical distance.

Photo: Getty Images

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