THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — On a recent Sunday at Godspeak Calvary Chapel, a spacious mission-style church north of Los Angeles, hundreds packed the sanctuary for worship. The band thumped out a soaring melody as the pastor of 20 years, a gray-haired man named Rob McCoy, took his place behind a lectern.

“Our nation has been devastated,” he intoned. “But no, no, no, the church won’t be silent.”

“The king of California,” the pastor went on, “is not greater than the king of all creation, Jesus Christ.”

There was a chorus of whoops and amens.

Godspeak did not always draw such enthusiastic crowds. Over the past year, though, this Ventura County congregation has transformed into a kind of garrison in the coronavirus culture wars. From his pulpit, McCoy dismisses covid-19 as an overblown sham and rails against pandemic restrictions he believes unlawfully trample religious liberties. For months, the church has held crowded, maskless indoor services in flamboyant violation of California’s health orders, and it remains ensnared in legal battles with the county and state.

At Godspeak, they are not just defying to worship. Defiance itself takes on a holy aura.

Rather than being spurned for staying open, Godspeak appears to have prospered. Attendance has tripled, the church says, drawing eclectic crowds of more than 1,000 each weekend. Worshipers include conservative celebrities such as roving troubadour Sean Feucht, who made a guest appearance at Godspeak this winter; onetime teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron, who lives nearby; and Turning Point USA wunderkind Charlie Kirk. The anti-vaccine set is also in the mix: Judy Mikovits, of “Plandemic” notoriety, delivered one of her conspiracist lectures alongside Robert F. Kennedy Jr. one evening this winter.

Godspeak’s audience online has also grown. The church’s YouTube subscribers, almost nonexistent before, now number more than 25,000, drawn in part by the play-by-play commentary offered on the church’s ongoing court dramas.

“They’re coming in droves,” McCoy said. “People are drawn because they’ve lost their freedom, they want it.”

‘So we opened — wide open’

Even before last year, McCoy had made a name for himself in liberal Southern California for his punchy blend of politics, religion and business acumen. In the 1990s, after working for a health and beauty company and for the market research firm Nielsen, he entered the orbit of Calvary Chapel, a California movement with roots in the evangelical revivals of the 1960s. He served as a youth pastor in San Jose before moving to the wealthy city of Thousand Oaks in 2001 to lead the local Calvary branch.

After a failed bid for State Assembly in 2014, McCoy had better luck in local elections. He was voted to the city council the next year and, in 2018, became mayor, a position he held for a one-year term.

But in 2020, McCoy's profile would reach new heights.

In March, as the pandemic swept the country, California issued its first stay-at-home order. Godspeak, like other churches, shuttered and went online.

But McCoy came to believe the virus did not warrant such sweeping closures. He announced Godspeak would be opening for Communion on Palm Sunday, April 5. Predicting backlash, McCoy resigned from his city council position the night before. The Palm Sunday services, while in technical violation of the health orders, were quite cautious. For example, masks were required, seats were sanitized and only 10 people were allowed in at a time.

Then, in late May, Black Lives Matter rallies spread across the country. And while large church gatherings were still limited, many political leaders — including Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) — showed support for the protests. McCoy saw this as hypocrisy.

“We knew then that the restrictions had nothing to do with the virus,” McCoy said. “So, we opened — wide open.”

By June, Godspeak was filling three weekly indoor services at the church, held inside with no masks nor limits on capacity. The Ventura County public health director, Rigoberto Vargas, pleaded for McCoy to change direction. “This activity puts many people at risk,” Vargas wrote in an email on July 31, submitted as court evidence.

“This has nothing to do with health,” McCoy fired back in a live stream. “It is a political ideology trying to be imposed upon the citizenry of our state.”

If the county wanted to spar with the church, he went on, “the gloves are off.”

The county sued the church at the beginning of August and obtained a temporary restraining order, prohibiting Godspeak from meeting inside. Church attendees were in clear violation of mandates — unmasked and packed close together — the lawsuit read, and McCoy “encouraged the violations of these mandates.”

Still, church services continued. Protesters gathered outside the building, calling for McCoy to shut down. News crews rolled up. Locals hoisted placards (“Jesus loves you, McCoy loves himself”) and clashed with churchgoers, who brandished their own signs (“Churchgoers are NOT criminals”).

On Aug. 21, a judge found the church in contempt and later ordered that Godspeak pay $3,000 for violating the county’s temporary restraining order. Godspeak refused. Instead, on Sept. 8, the church countersued. Church leaders claimed their rights under the First Amendment, like free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly, were being violated.

The state and county, the lawsuit read, were infringing upon the members’ belief that “followers of Jesus Christ are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together, and that they are to do so even more in times of peril and crisis.”

Later that month, on Sept. 28, the court ordered a preliminary injunction against the church, which could lead to more fines later. Services have now gone on for months since then, and McCoy could potentially face up to $6,000 per week, assistant county counsel Jaclyn Smith said. Imprisonment is unlikely, but possible.

But, for now, the church is in a curious limbo. The county appears hesitant to give the pastor more of a soapbox, which he never hesitates to use. McCoy’s stage persona is less a backwoods Bible-thumper than boardroom guru, with some showman’s flair. In November, when a California judge allowed strip clubs to reopen, but not churches, McCoy launched into a mock striptease onstage to point out the irony. At other times, he might break into theatrical accents or bray like a sheep to mock outsiders abiding by shifting mask rules: “Sheeeeeple. Bahhhh.”

Godspeak’s position has since been bolstered by the Supreme Court, which, starting in November ruled against restrictions on worship in multiple states, including California. Indoor services at up to 25 percent capacity are now permitted across the state. Although Godspeak is operating well above that capacity, church lawyers hailed the ruling as vindication.

Mariah Gondeiro, one of McCoy’s attorneys, said, “It is outrageous some counties still intend to push forward with suppressing religious expression and attacking pastors when they should be apologizing to those pastors.”

‘I don’t feel responsible’

Between services last month, McCoy stretched out in his cluttered back office. Attendants with wire earpieces hovered nearby to keep the pastor on schedule.

McCoy said: “They can label me whatever they want. They come after me and say, ‘He’s a superspreader.’ How? Show me.”

In early court documents, the church claimed that “not one church member has contracted covid-19.” Later, the county heard reports in late fall of an outbreak, affecting perhaps a dozen congregants. The church confirmed that three parishioners had died of covid-19 complications, though it said it was unclear where they contracted the virus. McCoy said: “I’m sad. It breaks my heart. But I don’t feel responsible.”

Such reports have led critics to view McCoy as a plague profiteer, and his church a public health hazard. The barbs only seem to embolden the pastor.

His pet nickname for Newsom? “Newssolini.”

Masks? He calls them “muzzles.”

Vaccines are available. Will he take one? “Uh-uh. Nope.”

One afternoon this month, McCoy milled around in the parking lot, embracing congregants. “Don’t Tread on Me” flags billowed from the back of one truck. A man gathered signatures for the effort to recall the governor. Another sat behind a sign that read: “Get A Mask Exception Badge Here!”

David Caliva, a machinist from the area, exited with a friend named Cathy Bennett. Pedestrians walked by with face masks. For a moment, the mood soured. Caliva said, “The world has forgotten about truth.”

Bennett consoled: “At this church, they haven’t.”

“Here,” she said, “I can be in the presence of the Lord.”

Sam Kestenbaum reports on religion.