VENTURA, Calif. (AP) — The pastor of a California church has vowed to continue holding indoor worship in defiance of coronavirus health orders after a judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the church from doing so.
“I wish it didn’t have to come to this, I really do, but we will be violating the judge’s order. We will be open this Sunday,” Rob McCoy said Friday, hours after the judge prohibited Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park from holding indoor worship services.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guasco cited “an immediate threat to public health and safety due to the 2019 novel coronavirus" in issuing the temporary restraining order.
The order will be in place until another hearing is held on Aug. 21.
The county north of Los Angeles and its health officer sued the church after McCoy repeatedly defied health orders designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Services for as many as 200 worshipers offered “singing, hugging, no masks," in McCoy's words.
The suit was filed last week, a day after the county Board of Supervisors authorized court actions to enforce the health orders.
The suit said permitting the church to keep holding indoor services could harm the public, “including hospitalizations and deaths."
“On a scale of one to 10 of the most immediate irreparable harm possible, this is a 10," Guasco said at the hearing. “It doesn’t get much more immediate or irreparable than the threat that a lot of people are going to spread a contagious and deadly disease.”
But McCoy has argued that the risk of spreading COVID-19 from its services is small and there hasn't been a confirmed case among parishioners.
Lawyers for the church also have argued that the health orders are overreach that are trumped by the constitutional right to freedom of expression and worship.
A law firm representing the church argued that the risk of death from COVID-19 in the county is minimal.
“We believe that COVID-19 can be fought with far less restrictive measures than banning all healthy persons from church and our expert witnesses will prove that,” said a statement Friday from Tyler & Bursch, which is defending the church through a non-profit organization, Advocates for Faith & Freedom.
Godspeak Calvary Chapel is one of a handful of churches in the state that have wound up in court over state or local health orders restricting services. Judges have consistently ruled against the churches on grounds of public safety.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings in a suit filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista.
The Ventura County judge cited that case at the hearing.
“The Constitution is not a suicide pact," Guasco said. “The exercise of individual liberties has to be consistent with public health.”
On Friday, Ventura County reported 111 newly confirmed virus cases, including some dating back to tests done on July 31. There have now been more than 8,000 confirmed cases and 89 deaths in the county, which has a population of about 850,000 people.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.