Authorities in California will attempt for a fourth time during the current pandemic to shut down indoor church services at a Los Angeles-area Christian megachurch.
Los Angeles County’s motion, scheduled to be heard in that city on Aug. 24, seeks to prohibit indoor services at the Grace Community Church of the Valley. The church is represented by the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm specializing in religious freedom issues.
On March 19, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, ordered almost all establishments, including churches, to be shut. On June 18, Los Angeles houses of worship were allowed to conduct reduced-capacity indoor operations. Reported cases of the CCP virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, began to increase.
In July, most indoor activities were again banned. Places of worship in California are now restricted to a maximum of 25 percent of building capacity or 100 attendees indoors, whichever is lower, and singing and chanting are forbidden.
Lawyer Paul Jonna, who represents the church, told The Epoch Times in an interview that he was optimistic about his client’s chances.
“I think that we’re dealing with health orders that are clearly unconstitutional,” Jonna said.
“I think the government is going to be unable to justify the restrictions they’re placing on houses of worship, particularly now when at this stage in the pandemic, when things are getting better, and I think that there’s been a huge double standard with how they handled the protests and the kind of establishments that are open. We did research: strip clubs are open in Los Angeles right now there.
“We’re dealing with government officials and their arbitrary priorities for millions of Californians and citizens of Los Angeles County. They have a very, very heavy burden and they’re not going to be able to meet it, and we’re going to aggressively pursue this case all the way up to the appellate court until the Constitution is upheld, because these are unconstitutional orders and they’re depriving people of their fundamental constitutional right to worship and we’re honored to stand beside Pastor MacArthur and help him fight this fight.”
Hours after Grace Community Church, which has a large seating capacity, filed suit to invalidate what it claims are unconstitutional pandemic mitigation-related restrictions on churches, Los Angeles County filed an application for a temporary restraining order to compel the church from conducting indoor services.
The church received a cease-and-desist letter from county lawyers on July 29, warning that violating state and county health orders “is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to 90 days.”
Each day of indoor services counts as a separate offense, according to the letter, which was described in court documents.
But on Aug. 14, Judge James Chalfant of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County rejected most of the county’s requests, finding that the county must demonstrate why it should be allowed to infringe on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of churches to freely exercise religion. For the time being, Chalfant issued a temporary injunction directing the church to have its congregants wear face masks and maintain social distancing during indoor services.
At the hearing, Chalfant found that the county was wrong to “treat churches the same as other businesses … they’re entitled to heightened protection, not to be treated like a hair salon.”
“I don’t think the county or the governor has adequately considered the First Amendment rights of the church. You cannot treat them like a hair salon.”
Jonna hailed Chalfant as “the first judge in California to agree that there’s constitutional problems with how they’re treating churches.”