Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

California congregations press on

Religious Liberty | Churches face fines for defying state and local indoor worship bans
by Steve West
Posted 9/01/20, 03:47 pm

Los Angeles County has started to fight back against churches that demand the freedom to worship indoors. After a California judge declined to stop indoor worship at Grace Community Church despite four court hearings, the county sent a letter on Friday terminating a lease agreement for a large portion of a parking lot the church has used since 1975.

Grace Community’s campus in Sun Valley, Calif., includes a 3,500-seat worship center alongside several other buildings, including The Master’s Seminary. Residential development hems in the facilities on all sides, and the church relies on several nearby off-site parking areas, especially on Sundays. Parking restrictions could limit the size of worship services and other uses of the property. And the church’s lawyers suspect that’s the county’s endgame.

“The only reason the county is attempting eviction is because [pastor] John MacArthur stood up to their unconstitutional power grab,” said church counsel Jenna Ellis of the Thomas More Society. “This is harassment, abusive, and unconscionable.”

MacArthur has opened the sanctuary for worship on Sundays since the end of July in defiance of state and county COVID-19 restrictions. He and the church’s attorneys are preparing for another hearing Friday about the county’s request for a preliminary injunction blocking indoor worship at the church. They filed a medical expert statement by Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya of Stanford University concluding that in-person worship at Grace Community Church was consistent with good health practice. The attorneys also argue that California’s restrictions violate federal and state guarantees of the free exercise of religion and improperly delegate legislative power to county health officials.

Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena, Calif.—also in Los Angeles County—continues to meet after a court ordered it not to on Friday. The city prosecutor also threatened criminal action against the church.

Liberty Counsel co-founder Mat Staver, who represents Harvest Rock, said churches complied with state and county mandates until dire predictions by governmental officials didn’t pan out. He added that church leaders reversed course in response to a spike in mental illness, suicide rates, alcohol and pornography use, and domestic and child abuse.

In neighboring Ventura County, officials fined Godspeak Calvary Chapel $500 per service on Aug. 9 and 16, and the church expects more charges. It has continued meeting for three services each week. At a hearing in California Superior Court on Aug. 21, Judge Vincent O’Neill found the church in contempt for violating an Aug. 7 temporary restraining order.

“We’re standing in defense of a government’s overreach and a government that would call the church nonessential,” Pastor Rob McCoy told KABC-TV of Los Angeles outside the courtroom. “It’s a small price to pay, and I’m good with it.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area community of Santa Clara, North Valley Baptist Church also met Sunday for indoor worship despite owing $10,000 in fines for two services it held on Aug. 23.

Most congregations in California are complying with local and state health mandates. But Staver said the churches that are open will not close: “They have made a resolved decision that enough is enough.”

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  •  SleeperSRT10's picture
    Posted: Tue, 09/01/2020 04:33 pm

    Vote for Biden and forced church closures will be the norm nationwide.  You may not like President Trump personally, but at least he will keep churches open!

    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 11:43 am

    Why do you say that? My denomination largely shut down nationally in March because of President Trump's comments. Yet, my governor ("that woman"), a Democrat, exempted churches from her shutdown orders. 

    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 08:24 am

    1 Peter 3:17 comes to mind: "For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing."
    MacArthur is endangering lives and damaging the reputation of Christ by unwisely denying the seriousness of COVID-19. ("There is no pandemic." -John MacArthur) People will listen, be confirmed in their bias, and continue to resist even basic mitigation efforts. Lives will be lost.

    Should California shut down churches? No. Should churches care more about their members than casinos about their guests? Yes. Should pastors who make sweeping pronouncements about CDC data actually read the data accurately? Yes.

    I don't think the big issue is reopening; that can be done safely. The big issue is that by using his platform to deny scientific reality, endangering those who respect him, and giving an opening for the enemies of Christ to claim Christians are uncaring and unscientific.

  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 09:20 am

    I, too, was very surprised MacArthur misinterpreted the CDC announcement, like the president. I see it as prideful and boastful, and I prayed for him.

    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 11:42 am

    Agreed. This is a matter for prayer. And, just to be clear, I think California has overreached regarding churches. I appreciate the fact that our governor in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, exempted churches from penalties in her shutdown orders and meeting limits from March until the present. But with that freedom comes a great deal of responsibility to use it wisely.

    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 12:40 pm

    I have greatly admired John MacArthur over the years.  Though I don't entirely agree with his battle with the State over openning his church, I somewhat understand that he views it as a matter of obeying God rather than men, and I respect the spirit of his convictions.  I do, however, think it possible to do both (but that is another topic).

    That said, I'm greatly dismayed over his "no pandemic" interpretation of the CDC data.  I think that the world is watching, and that when they hear the Gospel from John MacArthur, they are likely to remember his irresponsible response to that data, and wonder why they should believe what he says about Christ.

    More,  I have been dismayed that Christians, in general, have been such bad actors during this crisis.  Social media is glutted with just plain meaness and lawlessness from professed believers who are full of conspiracy theories and more concerned about their "rights" than to lovingly consider the health vulnerabilites of brothers and sisters in Christ. Further, they outright reject the Apostle's Romans 13 admonition to obey those whom God has put in place to rule over us when that obedience does no violate that commands of God (e.g., wearing masks, and reasonable social distancing practices).

    It's a very poor Christian testimony.  We should grieve.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 10:17 pm

    I can't imagine that a high-risk person will be attending these in person services. That would be foolish. How many have died at this church in the last month because of Covid? 

    When pastors, for almost six months now, confirm the State's proclaimation that churches are non-essential by not opening their doors, the culture hears that and confirms their biases.

    The CDC data is showing that about 6% of the Covid deaths have been attributed to only Covid. Is this as serious a disease as the media and governments want us to believe?

    Churches tried to open "safely" and they were quickly shut again. Why? Apparently masks and social-distancing don't work in churches, according to Gov. Newsom. At what point are we as Christians to say, "enough is enough"?

    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 08:32 am

    Nobody's died from this church, that I'm aware of, in the last month because of COVID. Thank God for his mercy. I know of a couple churches that reopened in May, gradually going from some precautions to hardly any. Nobody died -- until August. Several have been hospitalized, they had to shut down in-person services, and key people in the church have passed away.

    I doubt anyone on World's website is arguing that church is nonessential. I'm certainly not. I think we need church more than ever. And it's vital that the church care more about the people it has been entrusted with than our political advantage.

    The CDC data shows that COVID was listed as the primary cause of death on 90+% of the death certificates. 6% had no other comorbidities, such as blood clots (which are caused by COVID), pneumonia (which is caused by COVID), etc.

    I'm not here to defend Governor Newsom. But, my Christian charity requires me to put the best possible construction on his actions, and I hope he is acting because he genuinely wants to saves lives.

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 01:10 pm

    I'm appalled and dismayed at the comments of some of the folks here, who are criticizing California churches for finally taking a stand against massive government overreach.

    I'm also starting to question whether or not my beliefs and convictions line up with a majority of World's staff and readers.

    Simply put, and frankly I'm not arguing with anyone who has bought the lie about COVID being deadly to those under 65 years of age.  I point to Sweden, which never lockdown or wore masks, and they are essentially rid of COVID-19 and have carried on normally this entire time.

    This irrational fear of a virus is also unBiblical.  I fear God, and not a virus.

    California is essentially a police state, and these churches have a First Amendment right to worship and assemble.  There is no justification for a government regulation shutting down selective business and establishments, based on random decisions of a handful of overzealous elected officials.

    I'm literally sitting here profoundly angry that so many people have been sold a lie, and have obediently bought the lie without question.  I hate to use the reference, but honestly, I see so many parallels between what is happening right now in the United States, versus what happened in Nazi Germany.  The German people and Jews just did what they were told, and the Jews waved goodbye from inside a cattle car on their way to a concentration camp.  We haven't resorted to concentration camps yet, but the inability of people to think critically through these important issues is beyond disturing to me.

    Bluntly put, if you think there is a danger from this virus that is even worse than standard influenza, I've got ocean front property in the Nevada desert to sell you.

  • not silent
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 01:51 pm

    Respectfully, phillipW, while it may be true that COVID 19 is not deadly to most people under 65, that does not mean it's not a problem or that precautions aren't warranted. I know someone PERSONALLY who is under 65, was infected with COVID, and almost died. Last I knew, he was told he had permanent lung damage. I am personally under 65; and, although I look perfectly healthy, I have a genetic condition that suppresses my immune system. I can be vaccinated against the flu, but there is no vaccine against COVID.  While I'm not personally afraid of COVID, I don't want my actions to cause pain or difficulty for OTHERS.

    My church met online from March until sometime in August, and we have had several Bible studies by Zoom.  If anything, I feel closer to others in the congregation because we have had to make the effort to communicate and have had more time for prayer request.

    These aren't lies, PhillipW.  And this isn't some exercise in critical thinking.  These are my PERSONAL experiences. 

    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 04:38 pm

    PhillipW, I don't think many of us have criticized California churches for standing against overreach. I was at least somewhat supportive of MacArthur's holding services, since California was treating churches differently from other gatherings.

    As far as your other points, someone has not been honest with you.

    COVID is deadly to those under 65 years of age. Ask my 26-year-old friend.

    Sweden is not essentially rid of COVID-19; their death rate was far higher than the countries around them, and their economic downturn was similar, although not quite as severe. I'm surprised that so many conservatives seem to want Swedish healthcare, after we criticized Bernie Sanders so heavily for suggesting it!

    We have not been given a spirit of fear but of power, love, and a sound mind. It is not God-fearing to simply pretend this virus is not real, or is not deadly. Christians of all people should follow the truth wherever it leads, whether it is to our political advantage or not.

    As far as California being a police state, they probably have overstepped their bounds quite a bit. This is playing out in court, something that does not happen in a police state.

    Cattle cars? I'm not sure where this came from, maybe Mark Levin, but I keep hearing it. I'm sorry. There are a hundred years of history in wearing masks to prevent viruses. Quarantines go back to Bible times. Mass shutdowns also happened during the 1918 flu outbreak. Had it been possible to move many things to Zoom, conference calls, etc., undoubtedly there would have been more. Conservatism has never argued that it is wrong for local or state governments to take action to address a public health emergency. 

    As far as the standard influenza vs. COVID, we had more deaths in Michigan in a couple of months from COVID than we did from the flu in the past ten years. COVID is probably just about as deadly per case as the flu, but it is far more contagious, which is why more people die from COVID.

    It's sad that you're blaming World for not agreeing with you. I've read World since I was in high school. They were fair and balanced before it was cool, and they've continued to report with an even hand. 

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 10:41 pm

    Phillip, I agree with much of what you say. The global, government response to this virus is SO unprecedented, I also have been suprised at the almost disinterst of WORLD to investigate or question it and suprised at so many Christians I know giving into fear over it so completely.

    I have read just about every study, analysis, research, etc on cloth face-coverings I can get my hands on and the overall impression I get from them all is that they will be of very minimal use. Yet so many think they are the silver bullet to this virus. Are people actually looking at these studies, or just believing what they are being told?

    And the strange attitude that we will not protect ourselves or our loved ones and that we need the government to force others to protect us and our loved ones, is just so untrue and bizarre. I have two aunts-in-law with serious health problems. Neither are hardly leaving their houses during this time. That is how a truly high-risk person and their family would be living right now. One of them is convinced that as long as she and others are wearing homemade masks, she is safe, however. I am concerned that this is a common attitude. This is what the media and government is implying, but is simplly not true. The medical community is not trusting them when they work with Covid patients for a reason.

    And the fact that HCQ has not been utilized all of these months in the US, which has likely led to  thousands of deaths, is stunning to me. This was also an issue WORLD didn't investigate much.

    I do think Covid is more contageous and more lethal to those over 70 than the flu. Statistics seem to show this. But for the vast majority of the population...I just don't think the government response is worth all the horrible side effects.

    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 10:32 am

    A lot of high risk people are buying the propaganda that this is just a common cold. Some of the most careless people I know during this time are high risk. 

    AND - I reported your comment accidentally and can't undo it. If the moderators are checking this out, I was trying to "reply" and "reported" instead. I'm sorry!

  • not silent
    Posted: Fri, 09/04/2020 10:36 am

    Re the comment implying that people who accept reasonable precautions and medical guidelines put in place by experts and authorities regarding a global pandemic are "giving into fear" (as if to imply that we have less faith in God than people who refuse to accept the opinons of medical experts and authorities) or "just believing what they are told": I have a degree in science and worked in hospitals for years, and the guidelines we are being given are consistent with my own level of knowledge and with practices I have seen throughout my career  Significantly, it's not unusual for guidelines to be revised when new data becomes available; and that doesn't mean someone is lying or that there is a conspiracy-it's the way science and medicine work.   

    It IS true that anything can be politicized, and I have actually seen it happen in hospitals. There was one case, when there was an outbreak of a superbug; and administration initially blamed physical therapy and forced them to observe extra precautions (though doctors were observed NOT using the precautions). Although it was annoying and seemed unfair, the therapists could not control what doctors did-only what THEY did.  They could not stop OTHERS from infecting patients, but they could keep from doing it themselves; and stopping the infection to help patients was more important than trying to make a point about fairness. The patients ultimately recovered and the precautions were removed.   

    I won't deny that the information regarding scientific studies about the effectiveness of wearing masks is confusing, but some of that is because of how scientific studies work and how medicine works. Not all studies are equal.  Some have been retrospective examinations of infection rates with flu and other coronaviruses; but we don't know if COVID 19 behaves exactly like those other viruses.  Retrospective studies do not all take into account variables that would be relevant to THIS pandemic. (E.g., one of the studies did not take into account that the "mask wearing" group did not ALWAYS wear their masks.)  The earliest recommenations were based on data gathered for other viruses since there WAS no data about this one.  Since viruses like MERS and SARS did not spread to the US, for that reason alone, there was INITIALLY less caution here. Another factor is that the data we DID get about COVID was not all accurate (i.e., there was some coverup by China).

    They may not know exactly how effective masks are with COVID; but one reason is that there are many different KINDS of masks, it might be different with different populations (age, activity level, immune system, etc), it is likely affected by variable such as temperature, humidity, wind, length of exposure, etc.  I looked it up just now and there are numerous studies which have shown SOME effectiveness when masks are worn correctly, when exposure time is short (i.e., indoor events are more dangerous), and with SOME social distancing. (Re social distancing, I don't think they have had time to test exact percentages of effectiveness at exact distances for all populations in every environment-i.e., inside vs outside, temperature, humidity, etc.)  

    Unfortunately, in a rapidly developing situation like this one, they don't have TIME to wait for studies to show a consensus about every detail.  They have to make recommendations based on the best available data. SInce there is some variability, the powers that be have to use discenment to implement the data.  When public health is at stake and there is a large and diverse population, it's best to err on the side of caution.  

    There have probably been large church gatherings that did not directly cause deaths.  But is that the bar we want to be using?  Patting ourselves on the back because our actions didn't cause anyone to die?  At any rate, since I have heard of several cases where church meetings (or other groups like weddings, house parties etc) DID result in mulitple infections and some deaths, we can't say that is true of ALL church meetings.  SOME people are making wise decisions about precautions and risk; but, obviously, others are NOT.   

  • not silent
    Posted: Fri, 09/04/2020 01:36 pm

    Regarding the comment about parallels between what is happening right now in the US and what happened in Nazi Germany: I'm a little confused.  Are you saying that our CURRENT government, leaders, or policies remind you of Nazi Germany? Considering that you have chosen such an inflammatory example, would you mind clarifying exactly who and what you are talking about? 

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 09/04/2020 08:09 pm

    Thank you, not silent. Science is certainly not perfect, and can sometimes be completely wrong, but for many questions, it's the best we have. Good science is drawing the best conclusions we can from the best data we have, and remembering that we may have to change our conclusions as we learn more about the world.

    And if the teams of scientists working on these questions are able to keep open minds and humble hearts, as they should, then they will revise their recommendations and predictions as often as they need to in order to take into account the new information coming in. When it's all said and done, we'll probably find out that we vastly overreacted in some areas and vastly underreacted in others, but policy makers don't have the luxury of waiting to find out which are which. By then the damage will already have been done. So pray that the researchers will think clearly and communicate well, and that the policy makers will put the needs of the people under their authority above personal gain or political agendas. And pray for wisdom for us all.

  • DU
    Posted: Fri, 09/11/2020 02:39 pm

    Everyone should read the exceptionally written medical statement by Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya of Stanford University (embedded in Steve's article).  I have a medical micro background - his science and epidemiology is spot on.  If we follow the science (like we all think we do) you will agree with the Thomas Moore society's reasoning.