California church holds indoor services despite judge's ban

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VENTURA, Calif. (AP) — A California church held indoor worship services Sunday despite a judge's temporary restraining order barring the church from doing so.

Pastor Rob McCoy led three services in defiance of coronavirus health orders at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Ventura County's Newbury Park. McCoy had vowed Friday to continue in-person services even though the judge's order cited "an immediate threat to public health and safety due to the 2019 novel coronavirus."

The services came Sunday as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. hit 5 million, by far the highest of any country.

"I'm not being disobedient to the judge's order, I'm being obedient to God's order," McCoy said to applause during the final 90-minute service.

Livestreams of the services showed a mask-less McCoy and a musician standing before congregants. The first service showed at least two dozen worshipers — most of whom were also not wearing masks. It was not clear from the livestreams if they were standing 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart, though the church's website said that if a worshiper wanted to be socially distant, he or she should listen to the service from a car.

"I don't know what's going to happen today," McCoy told the worshipers as he opened the first service. "My desire is that we lift up the name of Christ."

The congregations sang to McCoy for his birthday Monday, even though state health officials say singing increases the likelihood for transmission of the virus.

"Lord, we're not here to endanger our community," McCoy prayed during the first service. "We're here because the church is essential."

McCoy repeatedly mentioned the judge's order and the county's lawsuit against the church that prompted it throughout the services. He acknowledged that he could face a citation or more for defying the court but said at the beginning of the final service he had not received one yet.

"Whatever they're going to do, I don't want to mess with God's justice," he said during the first service.

McCoy became more outspoken against the order and county officials throughout the day.

"We said 'no' to the restraining order, we're open," he said to applause during the second service.

ABC 7 reported that a group of protesters gathered outside the church Sunday morning. An altercation broke out when a man apparently tried to take a sign away from a woman, the TV station reported. Church security told ABC the man was not a member of the congregation. No one was hurt during the altercation.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guasco's order banning the church's in-person services will be in place until another hearing is held on Aug. 21. It did not appear to be enforced during any of the three services.

A judge declined Tuesday to order the immediate closure of a Southern California church that held indoor worship services despite a temporary restraining order barring it from doing so.

Ventura County had asked Judge Vincent O'Neill to hold McCoy in contempt of court and direct the Sheriff’s Office to close the church.

O'Neill denied the county's request to shut the church but scheduled a hearing on the contempt claim for Aug. 21.

McCoy told the Ventura County Star that he considered the judge to be “measured and balanced.”

County Counsel Leroy Smith said he was pleased that the judge scheduled the contempt hearing.

Ventura County Sheriff's Capt. Shane Matthews told The Ventura County Star on Saturday that deputies would not issue citations during the services.

"We're not going to take a proactive stance and disrupt the church service," Matthews told the newspaper.

Matthews said the county might have officials at the church documenting the situation Sunday and could issue citations later in the week.

A sheriff's spokesman did not immediately respond to The Associated Press on Sunday afternoon for a request for comment.

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.

Ventura County and its health officer sued Godspeak Calvary Chapel last week 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.
"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."

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.

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.

On Friday, the most recently available data, Ventura County has 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.

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