Los Angeles County has filed a lawsuit seeking full compliance by Sun Valley’s Grace Community Church to follow public health orders in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In a press release issued Thursday, the county says it “took this action reluctantly, after working with the church for several weeks in hopes of gaining voluntary compliance with the Health Officer Orders, which allow for religious services to be held outdoors in order to slow the spread of a deadly and highly contagious virus.”
“On July 26, 2020, Defendants began holding indoor worship services at Grace Church in violation of the State and County public health orders designed to stop the spread of the virus. In an interview on national television, [Pastor MacArthur] boasted that ‘last Sunday, 3,000 of them came back and they rejoiced and they hugged each other and they didn’t wear masks and they sang songs.’ Images from a video of the July 26 service posted on Grace Church’s website show that large numbers of people were gathered without wearing masks or engaging in social-distancing practices,” the lawsuit reads.
After this incident, county officials sent Grace Church a letter demanding that they cease indoor services, but the church once again opened its doors to congregants on Aug. 2. According to the lawsuit, “County officials who visited the Church to verify compliance with the County Order were denied entry. Video from the services shows that large numbers of individuals were gathered indoors. Those individuals were not engaging in social distancing and not wearing masks, which would be required if those services had been occurring outdoors as permitted.”
On Aug. 9 the church once again held in-person worship services and denied health officials entry inside.
The complaint argues that Grace Church has “made clear their intentions to continue violating the Health Orders.” Pastor John MacArthur, a defendant in the suit, said the following from the pulpit Sunday: “I’m so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.”
“We open the doors because that’s what we are,” MacArthur told CNN Tuesday. “We’re a church, and we’re going to trust those people to make adult decisions about the reality of their physical and spiritual health.”
A lawsuit filed by the church argues that regulations are not equally applied by Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “When many went to the streets to engage in political protests against racism and police brutality, these protesters refused to comply with the pandemic restrictions,” the church’s suit argues.
While not commenting on the specifics of the lawsuit — or on the lawsuit filed by the church — the Department of Public Health released the following statement:
We are working hard each week to respond to the many complaints related to non-compliance. The County always wants to amicably resolve these issues with all members of the community, including churches. We use education as the primary step in gaining compliance; however, when compliance is not achieved, we must use the other tools at our disposal.
For the health and safety of both worshippers and the wider community, indoor worship services have been prohibited within the County since mid-July. This was a result of a California Department of Public Health mandate and many faith organizations have demonstrated great leadership and compassion by following the health officer orders and keeping their congregations and the broader community safe.
COVID-19 is a highly infectious virus and it is easily transmitted indoors, in crowds and when people are talking, raising their voices or singing. Research shows that gatherings outdoors with participants maintain physical distance and wearing facemasks are less risky.
Los Angeles County is grateful to those religious institutions that are adhering to the Health Officer Order, and have found ways to worship that do not put the wider community at risk. As a community we need to be able to both protect public health and safety and operate the beloved community institutions that are central to our lives.
One thing is certain: we will not be able to enforce our way out of this pandemic and we need everyone doing their part to keep themselves and each other safe and healthy.
A copy of Los Angeles County’s lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, can be found here.