California Churches Defy Indoor Sermon Ban, Don't Require Masks to Be Worn

The pastors at two churches in Southern California held indoor services on Sunday despite the state's temporary ban on such services due to high COVID-19 infection rates.

Each pastor preceded the Sunday services by saying he could be fined $1,000 by local officials for proceeding with plans to hold worship events inside, and one pastor said congregants could also be fined for attending.

"The first 1,000 people could feasibly tomorrow receive a citation," Pastor Rob McCoy with Godspeed Calvary Church in Newbury Park, California, said in a video message shared with the public on August 8. McCoy encouraged patrons to weigh the risks and rewards of attending and said he'd received calls from many people who told him they "couldn't wait" to be fined.

McCoy said in the video message that the church would abide by its building codes—which he said limit attendance to 1,000 people—but said the church would not restrict attendance beyond that for any of its three in-person services. "Tomorrow's going to be crazy here," he said.

In one of the church's sermons live-streamed on YouTube, a large group of people could be seen clumped together at the front of the church. Many of the attendees seen in the video did not appear to be wearing masks or practicing social distancing.

Church in Los Angeles
The Rev. Arturo Corral presides over Mass celebrated outdoors at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church amid the COVID-19 pandemic on August 9, in Los Angeles. Elsewhere in Southern California, two pastors said they could be fined $1,000 for holding indoor church services in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. Mario Tama/Getty

"I'm not being disobedient; I'm being obedient," McCoy told his congregants on Sunday. "God called us to open, and we opened on Pentecost, May 31, and we haven't closed since."

Less than 50 miles away, Pastor John MacArthur gave sermons of his own at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He too faced a $1,000 fine for holding the services indoors, according to the Thomas More Society law firm that is representing him. In a news release, the firm said the church and MacArthur were "the target of unconstitutional religious discrimination" due to both the state's temporary ban on indoor services and a cease and desist letter the city of Los Angeles sent MacArthur in response to his plans to keep in-person services going.

"This illegitimate, over-broad, and unconstitutional order to indefinitely cease assembling, and exercising their religion and sincerely held religious beliefs, forced Grace Community Church to defy the order and continue exercising their rights, seeking shelter in the guaranteed religious freedom protections of the United States and California constitutions," the law firm's release said.

In a statement the church posted on its website, it said church leaders complied with the government's orders in the early days of the pandemic but felt it was necessary to resume normal services when the restrictions lasted longer than expected. "We are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions," the statement said. "It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared."

California Governor Gavin Newsom said last month that counties experiencing high transmission and hospitalization rates of COVID-19 must close in-person operations of nonessential businesses and services. Places of worship were included on the list of businesses and services, along with gyms, nail and hair salons, malls, several office spaces and massage and tattoo parlors.

The California Department of Health identified both Los Angeles County and Ventura County—where Grace Community Church and Godspeed Calvary Church, respectively, are located—as areas with high transmission rates. By Saturday, August 8, state health officials reported more than 200,000 cases in Los Angeles County and more than 8,000 cases in Ventura County, with more than 554,000 cases reported statewide.

The debate over whether religious institutions should be allowed to host in-person services during the pandemic has been ongoing since the spring, when initial closures in California and several other states required places of worship to close. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages places of worship to follow social distancing and face covering recommendations, county officials in California and across the country encouraged patrons to worship remotely.

Both Godspeed Calvary Chapel and Grace Community Church live-streamed their Sunday services. Godspeed Calvary Chapel also encouraged patrons on its website to listen to sermons over the radio if they preferred to stay socially distant from the rest of the congregation.

The churches both cited the First Amendment in their decisions to keep in-person services active. In Thomas More Society's news release, attorney Jenna Ellis said Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Newsom were the ones in the wrong for blocking Grace Community Church's ability to assemble inside.

"Grace Community Church has every right to assemble without impossible and unreasonable infringement from the state, and the state has absolutely no power to impose the restrictions it is demanding," Ellis said.

It was unknown Monday morning whether either of the churches were cited for Sunday's services. Newsweek reached out to both churches for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.