MacArthur vs. California—the battle continues
Churches | The popular pastor and his megachurch continue to fight against an indoor worship ban
by Steve West, Mickey McLean & Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 8/18/20, 03:14 pm
After several days of legal seesawing, state and local officials and John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church are back where they started, with California and Los Angeles County saying no to indoor services and the congregation gathering for worship anyway.
The California 2nd District Court of Appeal late on Saturday set aside a lower court order and said the Sun Valley church had to follow state and local coronavirus restrictions.
Grace Community’s leadership has engaged in an intensifying battle with government officials ever since the state reinstituted gathering bans in response to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. MacArthur filed a lawsuit on Wednesday seeking to block the state of California from enforcing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order banning indoor worship in the state’s most populous counties, including Los Angeles County, where Grace Community is located. The congregation has met for the last three Sundays in defiance of the order.
The 46-page complaint accuses the Democratic governor and other state and county health officials of wide-ranging constitutional violations. It draws special attention to the way government officials encouraged recent mass protests while barring indoor church gatherings and singing and chanting—calling it “blatant favoritism.” On July 29, Los Angeles County attorneys sent MacArthur a cease-and-desist letter threatening fines of up to $1,000 a day and imprisonment if his church didn’t stop gathering for worship indoors.
“After Grace Community Church voluntarily complied with state orders for nearly six months, California’s edicts demanding an indefinite shutdown have gone now far past rational or reasonable and are firmly in the territory of tyranny and discrimination,” said Jenna Ellis, special counsel for The Thomas More Society, which represents the church. “This isn’t about health. It’s about blatantly targeting churches.”
Los Angeles County requested a temporary restraining order against the church on Thursday, arguing indoor services posed an immediate health threat.
“The county always wants to amicably resolve these issues with all members of the community, including churches,” Los Angeles County officials said in a statement. “We use education as the primary step in gaining compliance; however, when compliance is not achieved, we must use the other tools at our disposal.”
California Superior Court Judge James Chalfant denied the county’s request on Friday and said the church could hold indoor, in-person worship services as long as members took certain precautions against the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing and wearing face masks. The county immediately appealed the ruling, saying it could lead to the exposure of thousands of church attendees to the coronavirus and might cause other churches in the state to openly defy the health orders of state and local government officials.
MacArthur thanked Chalfant and said his church would respect and comply with stipulations, at least until a full hearing could take place on Sept. 4.
“This vindicates our desire to stay open and serve our people,” MacArthur said on Saturday, noting that the congregation and its leaders would “stand firm to protect our church against unreasonable, unconstitutional restrictions.”
But after the appeals court overturned Chalfant’s ruling, Grace Community defied the reinstated ban and held worship as usual on Sunday without congregants wearing masks or social distancing.
“We’re not meeting because we want to be rebellious,” MacArthur told the congregation at the beginning of the service. “We’re meeting because our Lord has commanded us to come together to worship Him.”
Other churches facing worship restrictions in their states have taken a different approach and see following health guidelines and adjusting worship practices as a way to serve their communities. In July, several large churches, including Andy Stanley’s North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., said they likely would offer online services only until 2021 to protect congregants. Gavin Ortlund, a Baptist pastor in Southern California, responded to MacArthur’s decision to defy state and local orders by acknowledging the importance of religious liberty while explaining why he doesn’t believe civil disobedience is the correct response. His church, First Baptist of Ojai, currently is meeting outdoors.
“As the church, we want to be seen to care about the welfare of our communities, and to be helpful citizens who are willing to do our part to serve the common good,” Ortlund wrote. “We want to make it clear to the watching world that we are not just concerned with defending our rights, but that we are willing to lay down our rights for the sake of others.”
Two other Southern California churches affected by the indoor gathering ban, Pasadena’s Harvest Rock Church and Newbury Park’s Godspeak Calvary Chapel—both of which also have met in defiance of the governor’s order—continue to fight efforts by the state to force them into compliance. In a telephone hearing on Wednesday, a federal judge denied Harvest Rock’s request to bar the state from enforcing the order closing its worship center. The church, represented by Liberty Counsel, has appealed the ruling. In Godspeak’s case, a state judge declined Ventura County’s request to have the sheriff immediately close the indoor worship facility. The court will hear a motion on Friday to hold the church in contempt.
“I can’t imagine a time when this particular society all of a sudden loves and tolerates the church,” MacArthur told Megan Basham on Thursday’s edition of The World and Everything in It. “We just decided to engage at the point the society began to control the church.”
Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report since its initial posting.
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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.
Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.