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.”
Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
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.