LOS ANGELES (CN) — A California judge on Thursday ordered a megachurch to stop holding indoor worship services in the ongoing legal battle between Los Angeles County health officials and church officials who refuse to follow health orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Grace Community Church of the Valley located in Sun Valley has continued to hold large-scale church services despite county health orders banning large indoor gatherings.
On Thursday, LA County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff ordered the church to stop holding its services under county and state health orders.
“The Court, having considered the papers submitted by the parties, and having heard arguments of counsel, finds that there is an immediate threat to public health and safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Beckloff wrote.
He said the “harm to the general public, including all residents of Los Angeles County, from the nonissuance of a preliminary injunction outweighs the harm to defendants from the issuance of a preliminary injunction.”
Beckloff also wrote that any outdoor worship services would need to comply with local and state health orders and all worshipers will need to wear face masks and practice physical distancing.
LA County officials said they “reluctantly” sued the church in August after they tried to work with church leaders to come into compliance with the health order.
A Superior Court judge declined to issue a temporary restraining last month and the church continued to hold its services despite the ongoing legal proceedings.
Last month, church pastor John MacArthur opened his Sunday service with the message, “I’m so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.”
A Ninth Circuit panel said it would not issue a restraining order and sent the matter back to the state court.
Beckloff did not issue sanctions against the church at a previous hearing, but did order the church to allow county health officials to enter the church premises to make sure they are complying with the local and state health orders.
Church attorney Jenna Ellis wrote on Twitter, “Judge allows LA county to DENY religious freedom” to Grace Community Church and ban indoor services.
In a statement, the church’s attorney Charles LiMandri said they were disappointed in the ruling because the court did not apply the strict scrutiny analysis to the government order.
“The court also did not properly consider the medical and scientific evidence that the current number of people with serious COVID-19 symptoms no longer justifies a shuttering of the churches.”
LiMandri went on to say that the court has treated churches like “second-class citizens compared to the tens of thousands of protesters.”
Ellis said in a statement, “The county’s argument was basically ‘because we can,’ which is the very definition of tyranny.”
MacArthur called the ruling “inexplicable” and that a small amount of Californians should not trump the rights of churches.
Since the onset of the pandemic LA County has reported 251,000 confirmed infections and over 6,000 deaths.