A California megachurch sued the state and Los Angeles County on Wednesday in an effort stop officials from enforcing measures that prohibit large indoor gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Los Angeles County on Thursday sued back.
Grace Community Church's lawsuit "seeks to prohibit California from enforcing its unconstitutional and onerous coronavirus pandemic regulations against Grace Community Church and seeks a judgment that the health orders violate the California Constitution," according to a statement from the Thomas More Society, whose attorneys are representing the church.
"The complaint states that the American people have begun to see that they are being cheated by their own government," said the statement from the society, a nonprofit religious liberty group.
“They have witnessed how the onerous restrictions imposed on them by public officials to allegedly fight the COVID-19 pandemic simply do not apply to certain, favored groups," the statement said. "When many went to the streets to engage in ‘political protests’ against ‘racism’ and ‘police brutality,’ these protestors refused to comply with the pandemic restrictions. Instead of enforcing the public health orders, public officials were all too eager to grant a de facto exception for these favored protestors.”
On July 29, Los Angeles County sent a notice of violation of public health orders to Grace Community Church pastor John MacArthur after health officials learned he had held in-person worship services on July 26.
"Media coverage of the services included photographs depicting hundreds of persons within the Grace Community Church," the letter said. A recording of the service posted to the church's Facebook page shows people crammed into pews, with no apparent concern for social distancing. Many people in the video appear not to be wearing a mask.
"The County requests that you immediately cease holding indoor worship services or other indoor gatherings, and adhere to the Health Officer Order directives governing activities at houses of worship. If you or Grace Community Church continue to hold indoor services in violation of the law, you are subject to criminal and civil liability," the letter from the county said.
On March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered almost all establishments, including places of worship, to close. On June 18, Los Angeles was allowed to again hold "reduced-capacity indoor operations at houses of worship," according to the county. But "case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths rose at an alarming rate" and the order was reversed on July 13, again prohibiting most indoor operations.
Places of worship in California are now limited to 25 percent of building capacity or 100 attendees indoors, whichever is lower, and singing and chanting are prohibited.
A statement from Grace Community Church leaders said they had originally cooperated with the government orders in the interest of public health, but would not any longer.
"When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to 'flatten the curve' — meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren't overwhelmed," the statement said. "But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions."
"Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands," the statement said. "We, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services."
On Thursday, the day after Grace filed its lawsuit, Los Angeles County "reluctantly, after working with the church for several weeks in hopes of gaining voluntary compliance with the Health Officer Orders," sued the church.
The county has pointed out that the church has the ability to conduct outdoor and virtual services but chooses to hold indoor services in violation of government orders.
"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," Los Angeles County said in a statement Thursday.
"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 face masks are less risky, the county's statement advised. "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."
California on Thursday became the first state to surpass 600,000 coronavirus cases.
As of Aug. 12, nearly 11,000 people in the state have died from coronavirus, according to the California Department of Public Health. Los Angeles County reported about half of those deaths.