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After COVID-19 outcry, L.A. church postpones conference for 3,500

A megachurch in Sun Valley that has previously defied Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 public health orders is postponing plans to hold an annual conference in March that health officials feared could become a superspreader event.

The announcement on Friday by Grace Community Church said the move was taken because of threatened legal action by state and county officials. The move came after The Times published a story about the concerns expressed by public health officials.

The conference, originally scheduled for early March, was expected to draw 3,500 men from across the country to the church’s large campus. The complex is in an area that continues to have among the highest case rates of COVID-19 within the county, and neighbors have held protests after Sunday services, pleading with churchgoers to wear masks.

A few weeks after last year’s Shepherds’ Conference, two older men from Washington state who attended the event — one of them a 90-year-old pastor — died of complications from COVID-19, according to family members and news reports by Slavic Sacramento, a daily Russian-language news site in California. (It’s not known where the men contracted the virus or whether it was connected to the event.)

County health officials expressed relief with the church’s decision, which came after officials asked the church to “reconsider the conference in light of the risks.”

“We … appreciate when individuals and organizations do the right thing to keep the public safe,” said a statement from the Department of Public Health. “Following the Health Officer Order helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, a deadly virus that has sickened more than a million people and killed more than 18,000 of our friends, family, and neighbors in Los Angeles County. Collectively, every action to reduce the risk of spread gets us closer to seeing an end to this pandemic.”

The decision marked an abrupt turnabout for the church, which had sent a positive message Friday morning to conference attendees. “We’re looking forward to serving you and 3,500 other pastors and church leaders in March,” the email said.

About nine hours later, the church announced the postponement, which it said was a wise decision given the circumstances.

“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 Shepherd’s Conference,” the church said in a statement on its conference website.

ANNOUNCEMENT:

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 Shepherd’s Conference.

— Grace Church (@GraceComChurch) February 12, 2021

Grace Community Church has been in a legal battle with the county since August, when the county sued the church after it restarted indoor worship services, which were prohibited at the time under the county’s health order. Most attendees do not wear masks during indoor Sunday service, steadfastly following the beliefs of the church’s leader, Pastor John MacArthur, who has been skeptical of the pandemic and outspoken about his church’s constitutional liberties.

Though the Supreme Court recently ruled that indoor services are permitted under certain restrictions, county health officials had said the Shepherds’ Conference doesn’t qualify as a worship service but is instead a conference and thus prohibited under the county’s public health order.

“A conference hosted by a church or anyone else is a gathering prohibited under the Health Officer Order,” county officials said in a statement.

In their statement Friday, church leaders said they plan to continue to fight the county in court.

“We will not yield to government’s infringement upon the biblical command to worship and gather together,” church leaders said in a statement. “We intend to steadfastly defend this truth and obtain appropriate constitutional and legal protections and further relief from the Court.”

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