By Associated Press - Sunday, August 9, 2020

VENTURA, Calif. — A California church held an indoor worship service Sunday morning despite a judge’s temporary restraining order barring the church from doing so.

Pastor Rob McCoy led a 9 a.m. service in defiance of coronavirus health orders at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Ventura County’s Newbury Park. McCoy had vowed Friday to continue in-person services even though the judge’s order cited “an immediate threat to public health and safety due to the 2019 novel coronavirus.”

A livestream of the morning’s service showed a mask-less McCoy and a musician standing before at least two dozen worshipers - most of whom were also not wearing masks. It was not clear from the livestream if they were standing 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart.

The congregation sang to McCoy for his birthday Monday, even though state health officials say singing increases the likelihood for transmission of the virus.

Two other services are planned for later Sunday.

On Friday, Ventura County reported 111 new confirmed virus cases, including some dating back to tests done on July 31. There have now been more than 8,000 confirmed cases and 89 deaths in the county, which has a population of about 850,000 people.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some - especially older adults and people with existing health problems - it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guasco’s order banning the church’s in-person services will be in place until another hearing is held on Aug. 21. It did not appear to be enforced during Sunday’s 9 a.m. service.

Godspeak Calvary Chapel is one of a handful of churches in the state that have wound up in court over state or local health orders restricting services. Judges have consistently ruled against the churches on grounds of public safety.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings in a suit filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista.

Ventura County and its health officer sued Godspeak Calvary Chapel last week after McCoy repeatedly defied health orders designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Services for as many as 200 worshipers offered “singing, hugging, no masks,” in McCoy’s words.

“On a scale of one to 10 of the most immediate irreparable harm possible, this is a 10,” Guasco said at the hearing. “It doesn’t get much more immediate or irreparable than the threat that a lot of people are going to spread a contagious and deadly disease.”

McCoy has argued that the risk of spreading COVID-19 from its services is small and there hasn’t been a confirmed case among parishioners. Lawyers for the church also have argued that the health orders are overreach that are trumped by the constitutional right to freedom of expression and worship.

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