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John MacArthur, Grace Community Church defy California bans on singing, indoor worship

LOS ANGELES (AP/RNS) — Grace Community Church congregants in Sun Valley gathered indoors and sang hymns on Sunday (July 26), defying California regulations that aim to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“This is a very special day in the life of our church family. It is for us a return to what we love the most, the fellowship of the saints and the worship of our Lord,” said Pastor John MacArthur from the pulpit.

A video stream of the service posted on the church’s Facebook page shows people singing and sitting near each other, many without masks.

MacArthur said the congregation has galvanized behind Grace Community Church. Those outside the church have not.

“Many people don’t understand why we would do this. We understand that. We understand that the world does not understand the importance of the church,” MacArthur said.

Sunday’s service was held amid a new round of closures that are in effect in California as COVID-19 cases have surged during the summer.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in mid-July once again shut down bars and indoor dining. Across more than 30 counties in the state, closures include indoor church services, gyms, nail salons and malls.

These rules apply to Grace Community Church as Los Angeles County remains on the state’s monitoring list.

Additionally, restrictions for indoor religious gatherings also include a ban on singing. Chanting and singing “negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing,” according to health officials. A number of churches have already sued the state for banning singing and chanting in places of worship but permitting such activities elsewhere.

After Newsom’s order forbidding indoor worship in many counties, several Southern Baptist leaders in California expressed disagreement and displeasure, saying the order infringed on religious liberty. But Terry Barone, communications team leader for the California Southern Baptist Convention, said pastors he had spoken with planned to comply with the order.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in a statement provided to Religion News Service said its Environmental Health division “is investigating and will be reaching out to the church leaders to let them know they need to comply with the Health Officer Order.”

Grace Community Church has not yet responded to a request for comment.

On July 24, MacArthur and the church’s elders issued a statement entitled “Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open.”

The statement said Grace Community Church has always stood steadfast on biblical principles. It claims that while the government is charged with protecting civic order and well-being, “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.”

“As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture,” the statement reads. “Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”

A new survey of Protestant pastors found that those from evangelical churches were most likely to say that their church has met in person for worship in recent weeks.

On Friday, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from a Nevada church, which challenged that state’s restrictions on large public gatherings.