LOS ANGELES (CNS) - With a Sun Valley church demanding more information about the basis for county health orders barring indoor worship services, a judge today put off a decision on whether the church should face sanctions for holding large indoor services in spite of the restriction.
Another hearing is scheduled for Monday morning.
After the latest hearing, the two sides had differing accounts of the judge's actions. Jenna Ellis, an attorney for the Thomas More Society, which is representing the Sun Valley house of worship, said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff “correctly found there is no court order prohibiting Grace Community Church from holding indoor services.''
Ellis also said the county “continues to harass and target Pastor (John) MacArthur. Having failed to get a court order to shut down the church they have sought three times, they're going to try again by hauling us back into court.''
But lawyers for the county said Beckloff affirmed a state Court of Appeal ruling handed down on Saturday that upheld the validity of the county health officer's order, including the prohibition on indoor church services.
Under the health order, faith services and protests are permitted to take place outdoors, but not inside because such gatherings dramatically increase the potential for spreading the virus, according to the county's lawyers.
The county has asked the court to consider issuing a temporary restraining order prohibiting the church from holding indoor services. If the court issues the order, any future indoor services could be grounds for a contempt citation and fines of up to $20,000.
The county issued a statement after the hearing, saying officials were “grateful that the court recognized the vital importance of our health officer orders in protecting the public health and continue to seek an opportunity to work with Grace Community Church to bring its services into compliance.''
“This is a matter of life and death for our most vulnerable residents as we continue to battle this pandemic,'' the statement read.
Last Friday, another Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected almost all of Los Angeles County's reasons for requesting a temporary restraining order against the church. Judge James Chalfant 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 county appealed the ruling and won, but the church went ahead with indoor Sunday services anyway.
MacArthur and Grace Community Church have filed their own case against the county and state in Burbank Superior Court, alleging health officials are attempting to shut down their indoor worship under COVID-related orders that violate the state's constitution.
The lawsuit was filed after MacArthur received a cease-and-desist letter from the county prohibiting services inside the building and allegedly threatening the pastor with fines and imprisonment should the church continue to allow indoor worshiping.
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