LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Attorneys for Los Angeles County asked a judge today to issue a temporary restraining order directing a Sun Valley church to stop holding indoor services in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but lawyers for the house of worship responded that there is no emergency because no health issues have happened during recent Sunday services.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff said he would decide on the county's request for the TRO against Grace Community Church today or tomorrow. The church held regular indoor services Sunday again in defiance of county health orders aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, church Pastor John MacArthur issued a sworn declaration in the case, in which he called the COVID-19 a “mostly harmless virus'' that does not warrant court-ordered action.
“Our leaders and congregation see no real health threat to warrant such restraint,'' MacArthur said. “ We see this action against us as an illegitimate misuse of power.''
On Aug. 14, Judge James Chalfant said the church could hold indoor services if the attendees wore masks and practiced social distancing. But the next day, on appeal from the county, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the county could enforce its health orders.
Today, Beckloff questioned lawyers for the church why he shouldn't grant a TRO given the county's interests in stopping the spread of the virus.
Paul M. Jonna, one of the church's lawyers, argued the county's motion was not only procedurally deficient, but also unnecessary because a hearing is already scheduled Sept. 4 on whether a preliminary injunction should be issued against the church.
Jonna said no harm has occurred since indoor services resumed and that it is unlikely that would change between now and Sept. 4. He also said that the county could have sought citations against the church, but chose instead to seek sanctions against the church and MacArthur.
“They want to put Pastor MacArthur in jail,'' Jonna said.
He said it would actually be risky for some congregation members to attend outdoor services, citing the heat wave that has brought triple-digit temperatures to parts of the Southland in recent days.
Lawyer Jenna Ellis, who also represents the church, told Beckloff her clients hope he will clarify the Court of Appeal did nothing more than say the county can come onto the church property and enforce their health order, but that they are not doing so through a court order.
Amnon Z. Siegel, a lawyer for the county, said the appellate justices not only overruled Chalfant's decision that indoor services could be held at the church, but also found that the county was likely to prevail on the merits of its health order.
“I do believe the Court of Appeal changed the analysis,'' Siegel said.
MacArthur and their church have brought their own separate complaint in Burbank Superior Court against Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Los Angeles 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.
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