A judge on Tuesday denied a California county’s request to order a local sheriff’s office to prevent a church from holding worship services in defiance of a temporary restraining order.
Superior Court Judge Vincent O'Neill Jr. rejected Ventura County's request to direct Sheriff Bill Ayub to close Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park after it held three indoor services despite a restraining order issued by the court last week.
O’Neill reportedly argued that the county sheriff’s office needs to be seen in a “neutral” role and that the county’s residents depend on the sheriff’s office to “keep the peace,” according to Ventura County Star.
The judge, however, granted the county's request for a contempt-of-court hearing.
Last Friday, the Ventura County Superior court granted a temporary restraining order requiring that Pastor Rob McCoy and Godspeak Calvary Chapel adhere to public health orders issued by the state and county requiring that church services be held outdoors.
Ventura County officials filed a legal complaint against McCoy and the church for holding in-person services of up to 200 people following the church’s decision to return to normal services after adhering to social distancing regulations.
McCoy announced his intentions to continue holding services despite the restraining order, set to expire on Aug. 31.
“I wish it didn’t have to come to this, I really do, but we will be violating the judge’s order,” he said in a video message to his congregation. “We will be open this Sunday.”
McCoy told the Ventura County Star that it is impractical for the church to hold services outdoors and that banning indoor worship services violates religious freedom rights.
The pastor called O’Neill’s ruling "measured and balanced."
Meanwhile, County Counsel Leroy Smith told the newspaper that he is pleased with the approval of a contempt-of-court hearing that has been scheduled for Aug. 21.
A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 31 to decide whether or not the order should be replaced with an injunction that could last months.
In Ventura County, there have been 8,740 cases of coronavirus and 93 reported deaths.
The church’s defense attorney, Robert Tyler, argued during the hearing that no cases of COVID-19 have been reported at Godspeak Calvary chapel.
"The lack of evidence the county is relying upon is astonishing," Tyler was quoted as saying.
In April, McCoy made headlines when he resigned from the Thousand Oaks City Council after serving on the board since 2015. His resignation came hours before he held a Palm Sunday communion with members to mark the beginning of Holy Week.
The communion came at a time in which gatherings of more than 10 people were banned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ventura County is among several counties on the California County Monitoring List. Under an executive order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom, indoor worship services are banned in counties on the monitoring list. Ventura County has been on the monitoring list since July 13.
Elsewhere in California, Harvest Rock Church received a cease-and-desist letter on Monday from the city of Pasadena demanding that the church halt its in-person worship services.
Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry submitted a request for an injunction last month against Newsom’s order. The church, led by author and international chancellor of Wagner University Ché Ahn, contends that the governor’s order essentially prohibits home Bible studies and fellowship.
“While Gov. Newsom encourages tens of thousands of people to gather for mass protests, he bans all in-person worship and home Bible studies and fellowship,” Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement.
Liberty Counsel is representing Harvest Rock Church in the legal matter.
“Such repression is well-known in despotic governments, and it is shocking that even home fellowship is banned in America,” Staver said. “Neither history of the church nor the Constitution is on the side of the governor.”
For counties not on the state monitoring list, indoor worship is permitted in limited capacities with no singing or chanting. At least three churches have filed a lawsuit against the statewide ban on singing in church.