A judge on Tuesday rejected Los Angeles County's attempt to temporarily bar a large church in Sun Valley from holding indoor worship services where hundreds of unmasked congregants have continued to gather over the last five Sundays.
The decision is the latest in a legal battle between the county and Grace Community Church, which has continued to hold services despite state and county health orders prohibiting indoor worship services.
The county was seeking a temporary restraining order barring the indoor gatherings until a hearing on a preliminary injunction on Sept. 4.
"It is deeply disappointing that the Court decided not to grant the County’s request for a temporary restraining order prohibiting Grace Community Church from holding indoor services," county officials said in a statement. "We look forward to a favorable ruling when a full hearing is heard on the matter."
The church and its attorneys celebrated Tuesday's victory, which extends a streak of favorable rulings. "We look forward to fully vindicating our clients’ constitutionally protected rights in subsequent proceedings for this important case," said Paul Jonna, one of the church's attorneys.
The county's lawsuit, which was filed Aug. 12, has encountered setbacks from the start, with a county judge allowing the church to hold indoor services if congregants wear face coverings and practice social distancing.
On Aug. 16, following the favorable ruling, the church's congregation erupted in applause when Pastor John MacArthur arrived at the pulpit for Sunday service.
"All that, and I haven't even said anything," he said, pausing. "We're having church."
An appellate court did rule in favor of the county at one point, but officials chose not to enforce the health order, at least until the full hearing.
MacArthur said the church was meeting indoors not because it wanted to be "rebellious" but because it was commanded by God to come together in worship.
"The good news is, you're here, you're not distancing, and you're not wearing masks," he told his congregation Aug. 16. "And it's also good news that you're not outside because it's very hot out there, so the Lord knew you needed to be inside and unmasked, so he did us that gracious favor."
Researchers have continued to raise serious concerns about how the coronavirus spreads indoors, especially while people are singing. In Washington state, a choir practice was deemed a "super-spreading event" after 45 of its singers contracted the virus, at least three were hospitalized, and two people died.
The county appears to share those concerns.
In a declaration filed in L.A. County Superior Court in mid-August, county public health officer Dr. Muntu Davis outlined his concerns with indoor religious gatherings, noting that at least 650 COVID-19 cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the country.
Davis said in the court document that he reviewed images and video clips of Grace Community Church's indoor services over the last few weeks and saw congregants sitting next to one another without wearing face coverings.
"Based on these images, in my opinion, it is only a matter of time — if it has not already happened — until there is a significant outbreak of COVID-19 cases among the attendees," Davis said.
Times staff writers Richard Read and Colleen Shalby contributed to this report.