Under Pressure, California Church Postpones Conference for Thousands

An evangelical megachurch, under pressure from health officials, said on Friday that it had postponed an indoor conference that was expected to draw as many as 3,000 people from across the country to Southern California.

Grace Community Church had planned to host the Shepherds’ Conference from March 3 to 5 in Sun Valley, a neighborhood that officials say is among the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus in Los Angeles County.

A website for the conference, which was geared toward evangelical men, had pointed attendees to hotels and promised a full lineup of speakers in English, Russian and Spanish, as well as continental breakfast and lunch.

But the church reversed course after Los Angeles County officials warned that indoor conferences were prohibited and that the event could worsen the spread of the virus, endangering attendees and the surrounding community.

Los Angeles County had sued the church and its pastor, John MacArthur, last August after officials said he had he opened the church and held a large indoor worship service with unmasked attendees, in violation of state and county rules.

“In light of our ongoing litigation and recent threats from the County of Los Angeles and the State of California, we have decided that the most prudent course of action at this time is to postpone the Shepherds’ Conference,” the church said in a statement.

“We will be deposing the key health officers and county officials and requiring them to answer for their oppressive actions under oath, and requesting all documents and information supporting their arbitrary attempts to restrict our religious liberty as a church,” the statement said. “Our church leadership remains firmly committed to the truth that Christ is the head of the Church, and we will not yield to government’s infringement upon the biblical command to worship and gather together.”

A representative for Grace Community Church said the conference would be held on a later date, which has not been announced.

The postponement came after county health officials had said they were exploring their legal options in response to the conference.

“The county is very concerned about the public health impacts that could come from an event like this if it’s held, especially as we continue to see high case numbers and large numbers of people in hospitals who are sick with Covid-19,” Dr. Muntu Davis, Los Angeles County’s health officer, told reporters earlier on Friday.

“Sun Valley and the surrounding areas continue to have among the highest case rates of Covid-19 within the county, and have for some time,” Dr. Davis said, “and a gathering of this magnitude will create additional opportunities for Covid-19 transmission, both to the people that attend this gathering and the other people in the community.”

In its lawsuit last August against Mr. MacArthur and Grace Community Church, Los Angeles County argued that he had openly defied rules against indoor religious services.

The county pointed to an interview that Mr. MacArthur had done with Tucker Carlson of Fox News in which Mr. MacArthur said he had held a Sunday service for 3,000 people who “hugged each other and they didn’t wear masks and they sang songs.”

Mr. MacArthur had argued that government officials had no power to forbid such services, pointing to Scripture to declare that “no earthly state has a right to restrict, delimit, or forbid the assembling of believers.”

Mr. MacArthur has also downplayed the severity of the virus. In a sermon last August, he drew applause when he said, “There is no pandemic,” and argued that the number of Covid-related deaths had been inflated.

“There’s another virus loose in the world,” Mr. MacArthur said, “and it’s the virus of deception.”

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court partly lifted restrictions on religious services in California, blocking a total ban but leaving in place a 25 percent capacity restriction and a prohibition on singing and chanting. The ruling was a partial victory for churches that had argued that restrictions imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, violated the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

Los Angeles County officials had said that the Shepherds’ Conference was not a religious service, but a prohibited indoor gathering.

“At this point, all conferences and events are prohibited,” Dr. Davis said on Friday. “At this point, it’s not something that is allowed.”

“In light of our ongoing litigation and recent threats from the County of Los Angeles and the State of California, we have decided that the most prudent course of action at this time is to postpone the Shepherds’ Conference,” the church said in a statement.

“We will be deposing the key health officers and county officials and requiring them to answer for their oppressive actions under oath, and requesting all documents and information supporting their arbitrary attempts to restrict our religious liberty as a church,” the statement said. “Our church leadership remains firmly committed to the truth that Christ is the head of the Church, and we will not yield to government’s infringement upon the biblical command to worship and gather together.”

A representative for Grace Community Church said the conference would be held on a later date, which has not been announced.

The postponement came after county health officials had said they were exploring their legal options in response to the conference.

Mr. MacArthur has also downplayed the severity of the virus. In a sermon last August, he drew applause when he said, “There is no pandemic,” and argued that the number of Covid-related deaths had been inflated.

“There’s another virus loose in the world,” Mr. MacArthur said, “and it’s the virus of deception.”

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