L.A. County reverses ban on religious indoor services, some SCV congregations already meeting

Valencia Christian Center Senior Pastor Swanzi Saunders holds a live streamed church service. Courtesy of Terry Collier

Indoor religious services can resume in Los Angeles County under the modified health officer order Public Health officials announced Saturday, following a Supreme Court ruling last week. 

“Places of worship are permitted to offer faith-based services, or otherwise allow access for faith-based practices, indoors and outdoors, provided that strict physical distancing is followed, which requires a minimum of 6 feet between persons from different households,” reads the updated order. 

Public Health officials still “strongly” recommend outdoor or remote services but for those who attend, they must wear face masks at all times, get screened for symptoms, physical distance via reconfigured seating and other methods to minimize crowding and congregating. If three or more cases of COVID-19 are identified, the cluster must be reported to the Public Health Department, according to the order. 

Reversal of the county’s ban on indoor religious services comes after the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to uphold the right to worship indoors following a Pasadena church’s legal battle challenging California’s restrictions related to places of worship. 

Harvest Rock Church sued the state over its ban on indoor religious services, citing the restrictions as “unconstitutional and discriminatory COVID-19 orders prohibiting plaintiffs’ religious worship services.” A California district court upheld the state’s ban in the case but the high court’s ruling ultimately granted the right to worship indoors. 

The modified order comes as the Southern California region’s intensive care unit capacity remains at 0% and as Los Angeles County continues to see record-breaking numbers in cases, deaths and hospitalizations. The county has seen more than 623,000 cases and more than 8,800 deaths to date. 

COVID-19 struck a Santa Clarita Valley-based pastor, who said he is recovering and was excited to hear about the county’s update order after holding an indoor service on Dec. 13. 

“We had mild to moderate symptoms but we are doing better,” said David Hegg, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church, who has worked with other local pastors in pushing for a return to indoor services for the past several months. “We were only in violation for one week and now that we are allowed to, we will continue to do so with great concern. We’re not doing this for any political reasons or that we believe there’s no COVID.”

Hegg said the place of worship on Copper Hill, with an auditorium that can hold up to 2,200, expects to see a smaller congregation of about 400. Rows have been closed off, the staff has doubled down on disinfecting doorknobs and other frequently touched items, and masks will be required, he said. Outdoor and remote services will continue. 

Not much will change for Crossroads Community Church in Valencia, according to Pastor Todd Smith, who said indoor and outdoor services have been held since August. 

“We’ve been open since August for indoor and outdoor services because we believe we’re under the mandate from God to gather,” said Smith, who said the church did not have “the luxury” to gather all outdoors. “The services we provide are, in my opinion, the most essential that can be provided inside of a community and when we were labeled not essential it was perplexing to me.” 

Smith said those who are sick or high risk are asked to remain home and those who prefer remote services will continue to have access. The church has also made modifications for indoor services, such as offering prepackaged food, cutting off drinking foundations and requiring that people wear masks and practice physical distancing. 

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