The legal fight over holding worship services during the coronavirus pandemic intensified this week when Ventura County’s Godspeak Calvary Chapel held indoor worship services Sunday. The church met in apparent violation of a California judge’s temporary restraining order issued two days earlier, which requied the congregation and its pastor to adhere to state restrictions on indoor worship services designed to limit the spread of the virus.
For weeks, the congregation has flouted public health orders and vowed to continue holding services without requiring masks or social distancing, ABC News reports. The county responded by filing a lawsuit against the church, its pastor, and its members who attended services, alleging that their actions endanger public health “”by creating a significant risk of further community spread of COVID-19, including hospitalizations and deaths, which in turn is likely to result in continued and further restrictions on businesses and other operations and activities within Ventura County, detrimentally affecting the quality of life of the entire community.”
The restraining order will remain in place until a hearing scheduled for August 31, but Pastor Rob McCoy has vowed to continue holding worship services indoors, calling it a “religious liberty issue.”
As BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler has explained, however, it’s more complicated than that. Here is an excerpt from her May 21 column on Medium:
The absolutist language of “rights” … fails to comport with a nuanced understanding of religious liberty’s complexities. Suspending in-person religious services is a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, yet the government retains the power to do so when protecting health and safety. Government cannot — and should not — single out religion for special disfavor by treating secular gatherings more favorably than religious gatherings. As long as governments are applying bans on public gatherings neutrally, religious groups shouldn’t play a persecution card.
For more on this issue, see BJC’s resource page on Faith Freedom during a Pandemic.