By Michael Hernandez
VENTURA—Ventura Superior Court Judge Vincent O’Neal upgraded the temporary restraining order against Godspeak Calvary today and issued a preliminary injunction demanding the church be shut down for indoor services.
“We will continue meeting,” Pastor Rob McCoy told reporters after the ruling. “Where are we going to go? How can you do communion over the internet? How can you comfort someone over the internet? How can you mend a marriage over the internet? How can you be made aware of child abuse over the internet?
“We want to cross-examine Dr. Robert Levin (Ventura County Public Health Officer) and Dr. James Watt (California Department of Public Health). Neither the county nor the state, have sufficient data to move forward in shutting down indoor services,” said Robert Tyler following Judge O’Neal’s court ruling. “Millions of people in California want to go to church. There are churches still meeting. Is the State and County willing to arrest parishioners and put them in jail for going to church?”
“I want you to understand that my view on the First Amendment and the right to protect religion is a treasure and to be carefully guarded,” said Judge O’Neal who commended the “respect shown the court by Pastor Rob McCoy and everyone involved; but the county position is the correct one. I’m impressed by the impressive qualifications of your experts,” said Judge O’Neal. “Attention will come at the time of a trial; as time goes by; but the issue today, is on imposing a preliminary injunction.
“I stand by Chief Justice John Roberts (Supreme Court) in stating there is broad discretion by officials charged with (health) responsibility due to the nature of potential harm. The defense arguments suggest a type of tailoring a ruling that would be different for different congregations or different parts of a congregation which is not practical in our society, state, or community. Our officials have to do the best they can to help our state and our community.”
Judge O’Neal set a court date of Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m. to schedule a court hearing date for considering a trial date which will not go before Judge O’Neal due to his retirement from the Superior Court at the end of October.
Earlier in the hearing, Judge O’Neil denied live witnesses in Courtroom 22 despite a request from Attorney Robert Tyler representing Godspeak Pastor Rob McCoy and contested by Attorney Jaclyn Smith representing Dr. Robert Levin.
Tyler in his opening arguments challenged “whether the emergency declaration could continue due to the science and data that is factual” and also challenged whether the county had employed the “least restrictive means” and if “the county had meant it’s burden” to do so. Tyler sought to question Ventura County Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin on “whether his rationale satisfied the rational basis of this case.”
Smith in her opening arguments objecting to live witnesses said they were “not relevant for any issues, nor to constitutional law, nor the science or data at issue at this stage. It is not for this court to control the pandemic but for health officials to make those decisions.” Smith gave a court opinion presented by Chief Justice John Roberts in the South Bay United Pentecostal Church where Justice Roberts ruled against those who “lacked background or expertise and were not accountable to the people.”
The attorneys for the defendants are Leroy Smith, County Counsel; Michael Walker, Chief Assistant County Counsel; and Jacklyn Smith, Assistant County Counsel who are attorneys for Ventura Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin. Representing Godspeak Calvary is attorney Robert H. Tyler, Jennifer L. Bursch, and Nada N. Higuera.
Attorney Higuera contested Smith’s claims that “a state of pandemic is not at issue in this case. The fact that COVID exists is undisputed” but what is in dispute is the evidence or science justifying the draconian measures that have resulted in the lockdown of the county and in preventing in-door church services. The burden is on the county,” said Higuera. We have had 150 deaths (in a county with a population of 850,000)” with a county lock-down now going into its seventh month.
Meanwhile, Attorney Smith countered that Godspeak’s case depended “on the claim that health orders are unlawful” while it has been Godspeak that has shown “contempt in violating state law and the county health office by singing, chanting or shouting.” Our actions are on “behalf of all people: the medical professionals, those who fall ill and on behalf of the elderly.”
Robert Tyler made three arguments against Ventura County in documents presented to Judge O’Neal:
- The Emergency Services Act violates the separation of powers previsions in Article III of the California Constitution.
- The Emergency Services Act violates Articles III’s non-delegation doctrine by delegating the legislative power to restrict civil liberties without limiting language such as “least restrictive means.”
- The Emergency Services Act violates Articles III’s prohibition of legislative vetoes.
- The Governor’s authority under the Emergency Services Act is unconstitutional.
- Because the State and County Orders restrain, prohibit, and effect fundamental rights, the standard of review is strict scrutiny.
- The plaintiffs restrictions on worship services violate the United States and California Constitutions’ free exercise clause because the restrictions ae insufficiently supported by scientific evidence.
- The balance of hardships tips sharply in favor of the Church and its congregants.
Robert Tyler also presented three declarations supporting Godspeak Calvary during the court hearing:
“Despite the state’s claim, there is no rational and legitimate scientific or public health basis supporting the sweeping breadth and scope of the State of California’s closure mandate” said public health professional Sean G. Kaufman who worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta from 1999 to 2006 and currently is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Safer Behaviors training others on infectious diseases with eight published articles.
“With respect to risks, everything that we know as public health and infectious disease professionals about the likelihood of symptomatic and symptomatic transmission, reproduction rates, signs, symptoms, mortality risks and other infectious disease characteristics of COVID-19 does not rationally comport with what I understand the state is claiming to be true in attempting to justify its mandate.”
“In short, the State of California’s overbroad and insufficiently targeted closure mandate is flatly inconsistent with the science of public health, biosafety protocols and with our understanding as infectious disease professionals of the characteristics of the COVID-19 virus.”
“For the non-elderly congregants present (at a church service), the mortality risk of contracting the disease is very low,” wrote Stanford University Professor of Medicine Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya who between 1996 and 2020 has published 136 articles in peer-reviewed journals including a study held in L.A. County and has testified before the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Given the importance of the First Amendment right to religious worship and the scientific evidence citied regarding the COVID-19 infection fatality rate, I believe that permitting in-person worship at Calvary Chapel Godspeak is consistent with good public health practice.”
“In coming to my opinion that places of worship should be allowed to hold indoor worship services, I reviewed information that is commonly and reasonably relied upon by other experts in my field, including numerous peer-reviewed studies that helped provide a basis for my opinion,” said Dr. Shannae Anderson, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist who graduated from the University of Southern California and works in Ventura County.
“The closures during this pandemic are producing lasting negative consequences. People feel alone and isolated. Anxiety and agitation reign. Alcohol abuse is rampant. Family conflict is at a zenith. This all creates a perfect storm for family violence. This increases the risk of erratic and destructive behaviors. The statewide lockdown has created a mental health crisis that has put children at a greater risk for abuse than ever before.
“I have witnessed significant increases in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and addiction since the lockdown. I have had patients attempt suicide, relapse into drug and alcohol addictions, and need to be hospitalized for serious emotional distress. The helplessness and powerlessness that many experience in the face of the lockdown can reactivate old trauma wounds which render parents distracted and easily overwhelmed.
“Spiritual services such as attending indoor church services help mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic by reducing both physical and psychological maladies. Meeting in person for church services reduces the extreme loneliness and depression experienced by many during this unique time. It acts as a protective barrier against “deaths of despair” and other serious conditions. Church attendance has also been strongly linked with better mental health and the risk of psychological pathology increases when it is not present,”
Photo Credits: Michael Hernandez
Michael Hernandez, Co-Founder of the Citizens Journal—Ventura County’s online news service; editor of the History Makers Report and founder of History Makers International—a community nonprofit serving youth and families in Ventura County, is a former Southern California daily newspaper journalist and religion and news editor. He worked 25 years as a middle school teacher in Monrovia and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. Mr. Hernandez can be contacted by email at [email protected].