Court Denies California County’s Attempt To Immediately Shut Down Church

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What has been characterized as the grasping hand of Caesar suffered a slap on the knuckles Tuesday as a California Superior Court judge rejected Ventura County’s request to block members of a Newbury Park church from worshipping in their building.

Godspeak Calvary Chapel held  in-person services Sunday despite an order issued Friday that called upon the church to suspend in-person worship until a hearing could be held in the last week of August. The church had been holding in-person worship for weeks in defiance of county rules.

“We are lovingly standing in defiance of Caesar’s orders because we’re standing in faithfulness to God’s order,” Pastor Rob McCoy said at one of the church’s three services on Sunday.

The services drew 100 to 150 people, Yahoo News reported via the Los Angeles Times.

County officials have claimed that holding the services isn’t only a violation of its rules, but a health risk for spreading COVID-19.

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Ventura County went to court demanding that McCoy be held in contempt and that the Ventura County Sheriff be allowed “to immediately take all actions reasonable and necessary to close the Property to prevent any further indoor worship services at the Property, until further order of court,” according to the county’s request for the order.

McCoy called the new demand “the epitome of government out of control,” according to the Ventura County Star.

Although the court scheduled an Aug. 28 hearing on the contempt charge, it rejected the request to have law enforcement seal off the church, according to a press release on the website of Tyler & Bursch, LLP, the law firm defending the church.

“I never thought I would see the day where local officials give testimony in the American court system that has the ring of a communist inquisition more than a fair judicial process where the defendant is allowed to prepare and present his evidence,” Robert Tyler, partner and president of the law firm, said in the release.

Is the free exercise of religion under attack?

“We believe that basic principles of due process requires a trial on evidence before a single Governor can suspend constitutional liberties for such an extended period of time,” he said.

The law firm noted that Ventura County had become so focused on the church that the house of worship was put under surveillance by two county officials for more than six hours on Sunday.

A statement from one official described as the director of code compliance said in the law firm’s press release: “At one point while we were parked in the parking lot on the Property, a woman approached from the driver side of our car and asked if we had ‘signed the Newsom recall petition yet.’ She approached numerous other individuals in the parking lot with the same request; she was not wearing a mask or face covering.”

A declaration from an official referred to as a senior code compliance officer said, “I saw no obvious attempts at social distancing and behavior and comments overheard suggested that many were friends, rather than household members. Many people were seen hugging and shaking hands and standing in close groups talking together for extended periods of time.”

The law firm said the church “desires to conduct a full evidentiary trial where it is able to present experts who will prove that the underlying basis for the continued state of emergency and that the quarantining of healthy people is unjustified and irrational.”

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In its response to the filing to effectively shut down the church, the law firm called the county’s action “a request to crush a church’s constitutional rights.”

In court papers, the law firm pushed back against the claim that the church has been linked to an increase in COVID-19 cases. The response also fired a shot at the county’s lockdown rules.

“The County is free to continue imposing draconian measures on small businesses and locking families indoors for as long as the people will allow it. It is the County, not the Church, that is ‘detrimentally affecting the quality of life of the entire community,’” the law firm wrote.

In summing up the case against the proposed request to close the church, the attorneys argued in court papers that “Plaintiffs essentially seek a preliminary injunction to restrain Defendants from exercising their First Amendment right to exercise their religion.

“The Church and Pastor McCoy have a sincerely and deeply held religious belief that it is essential for them as Christians to assemble and regularly gather together in person for the teaching of God’s Word, prayer, worship, baptism, communion and fellowship.”

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