Based on recent Supreme Court decisions in favor of churches and religious freedom, Los Angeles County has lifted a ban on indoor worship. A revised public health order states that both indoor and outdoor services are permitted as long as attendees practice “strict physical distancing” and wear face coverings. Such protocols can “lower the risk” of COVID-19 transmission but won’t “eliminate” risk, the county warns, adding that outdoor worship is still preferable.
Due to “an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” county officials state, “every effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community is critical.” In Southern California, currently the epicenter of America’s battle against coronavirus, intensive care units are full. The average daily infection rate in L.A. County alone is 13,000. Hospitals are “getting crushed,” says Dr. Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer at L.A. County-USC Medical Center. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this.”
California Churches Celebrate ‘victory’
Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church, which had sued Gov. Gavin Newsom over “draconian” worship restrictions, posted on Facebook Sunday, “GOOD NEWS!! LA County lifts the ban on indoor worship. Family, thank you for standing with us this year, through everything! Thank you for your words of encouragement, support and for your prayers. 2020 was not wasted!”
At Grace Community Church (GCC) in Sun Valley, where Pastor John MacArthur has fought to remain open and faced hefty fines, congregant Leon Felipe said of the reversal, “It’s a victory. We need to worship. We need to be together, with our brothers and sisters. … It’s not just another thing to do. It’s worship.” Another congregant, Zelda Williams, said, “It’s not that we feel vindicated; it’s our Lord who is vindicated.”
GCC attorney Jenna Ellis expressed hope that L.A. County will now “cease hostility toward Grace Community Church and agree to drop the pending contempt proceedings.” She also called the ban reversal “a tacit admission that [the county’s] action was unconstitutional, as it was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s rulings.” SCOTUS, with a newly cemented conservative majority, recently ruled in favor of churches in New York, Colorado, and New Jersey.
Other Churches Aren’t in a Rush
At St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Panorama City, the Rev. Lawrence Santos says he’s sticking with outside services for now, based on diocesan directives. “We’re happy to be able to celebrate outdoors,” he says. “The main concern is for the safety of people.” The church set up an altar and canopy in the parking lot, where some worshipers choose to remain in their vehicles.
The Rev. Loletta Barrett of Whittier First Friends Church says virtual-only worship is the responsible way to conduct church for now. “God gave us brains and scientists to help us understand how God’s creation works, and so the loving way to worship God is to listen to the scientists and stay home worshiping God and caring for others at a distance,” she says. “We have many people who live with people, whose health is compromised, of all ages. If all the friends can’t gather, it really wouldn’t be worship anyway.”