Judge refuses to stop MacArthur’s church from meeting
Religious Liberty | California worshippers continue to meet as their cases go to court
by Steve West
Posted 8/25/20, 05:23 pm
After a monthlong tug of war, John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church likely will meet indoors and in person again on Sunday after a judge refused to enforce Los Angeles County’s gathering ban by court order—at least for now.
MacArthur filed a declaration just before the hearing calling the restrictions on worship a misuse of state power: “The utter unnecessary deprivation of all our people by completely shutting down the mutual love and care that sustains our people in all the exigencies, pressures, and challenges of life, was cruel.”
In his five-page order issued on Tuesday, California Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled the county’s request for a temporary restraining order was defective, noting officials haven’t cited the Grace Community for violating its health restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. He did not strike down the gathering ban, which will allow Los Angeles County to fine the church.
MacArthur and the church initially sued state and local officials over their constitutional rights after the county sent a cease-and-desist letter threatening fines or imprisonment if the congregation continued meeting inside its sanctuary in Sun Valley, a Los Angeles neighborhood. A California judge on Aug. 15 allowed them to continue to meet until the matter could be resolved, provided that congregants adhered to social distancing and wore masks.
That truce proved short-lived. A panel of appellate judges stayed the ruling the next day on the eve of Sunday services. Church went on, with most attendees not wearing masks and little evidence of social distancing.
At a hearing on Thursday, Beckloff declined to hold MacArthur and Grace Community in contempt for continuing to meet. The judge said no court order prohibited the church from gathering in person, only state and county bans. He reiterated that stance in Tuesday’s ruling. A full hearing on the matter is scheduled for Sept. 4.
Other churches have already faced consequences for continuing to meet. A Ventura County, Calif., court on Friday fined Godspeak Calvary Chapel in the Thousand Oaks community northwest of Los Angeles a total of $3,000 for holding indoor worship services on Aug. 9 and Aug. 16 despite a temporary restraining order issued on Aug. 7. Risking further fines, congregants packed the church on Sunday. Pastor Rob McCoy urged the watching press to “do your job and report the truth” and said no one attending the church had contracted COVID-19. He noted that several other churches in the area also opened for indoor worship, creating a challenging situation for authorities. Government officials also have levied fines against North Valley Baptist Church in Santa Clara, located farther north in California’s Silicon Valley.
MacArthur said on Fox News on Friday that authorities at the local police department told him “there is no scenario that they can even imagine in which they would come and close down Grace Community Church and put anybody in jail because they enforce the law, and health mandates and governors’ mandates don’t constitute law.”
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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.