Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

MacArthur vs. California—the battle continues

Churches | The popular pastor and his megachurch continue to fight against an indoor worship ban
by Steve WestMickey 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 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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Mickey McLean

Mickey is WORLD’s executive editor for audience engagement. He previously was the executive editor for WORLD Digital. Mickey resides in Greensboro, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @MickeyMcLean.

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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.

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  •  nevertheless's picture
    Posted: Thu, 08/13/2020 04:46 pm

    We assume our leaders 'hear from God' in all matters relating to congregational life. So far, here in the Buffalo-Niagara region of Western New York State none of our church leaders hear God saying anything like what John MacArthur is compelled to do. I can think of nothing in recent memory that comes close to exposing the powerlessness of the church in America than their failure to stand up to the Liberal governing authorities of our nation. Shame on them. 

    Also, our church leader's failure to see this as a spiritual attack from the adversary exposes their latent secularism. If we, due to to remote learning, can dispense with the paid educational establishment and infrastructure where does that leave the pastoral class and church buildings? 

  • AlanE
    Posted: Thu, 08/13/2020 08:24 pm

    I think there's a difference between the California situation and the situation in most other states. Churches are not forbidden from meeting in most other states. Barring that, I don't think churches have the basis for the kind of response shown by Grace Community Church. I can't speak to your situation in New York, but where I live I don't feel churches would be justified in following the route GCC has taken.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Thu, 08/13/2020 06:18 pm

    We need to be together as a church right now more than ever. I have been so discouraged by the lack of courage by most of our pastors to say that "enough is enough". Is meeting together important or not? Does God want us to, or not? If it is so unimportant, why do we spend so much money on these big buildings and staff? And maybe we should "do church" a different way. I don't know.

    I trust our congregations to make wise health decisions for themselves and their loved ones. I think churches need to open up for healthy, low risk people. Even for higher risk people who need fellowship and are willing to take the risk. I'm tired of the government parenting me and my family, not to mention my church.


  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Thu, 08/13/2020 09:47 pm

    What is even more disturbing is the fact that some states allow bars, liquor stores and other places to be open but they put rigid constraints on the church. The church is viewed as nonessential by leaders while rioters, looters and those tearing down statues are treated as essential. 

    Many people ask for evidence of our Christian faith and I would say that the shear madness of people who reject the faith are evidence to it - they become fools (Rom. 1:20-22,24-32; 1 Cor. 1:18-25).

    Nanamiro, I think your advice is wise on how churches need to respond. We need to push back on overzealous Governors and other officials who would gladly keep the church shut down. We should pray for the church to be bold and to respond with grace, strength and dignity. Where they are not, individual Christians should boldly stand and rebuke them. And yes,I almost forgot, we need to pray for our leaders and governing officials! 

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Thu, 08/13/2020 07:02 pm

    The tough question is whether COVID-19 is nearly as dangerous to the general public as we are being led to believe.  Of course many people have gotten it around the world, and a lot have died or been seriously ill, but that can be said for other diseases that don't call for massive control and shutting down of people's lives. 

    If it is truly a major danger for everyone, even people who aren't in certain high risk categories, then churches should not be fighting for an equal opportunity to spread the disease.  But if the huge majority of people have very little risk of serious COVID-19 disease, then common sense says that our free society should not be under such rigid control, even more so in areas of guaranteed constitutional rights such as freedom or worship. 

    It's deplorable that this far into the pandemic so many people still don't feel they are getting the balanced objective truth about the dangers of this disease.  People feel they are being played, at so many levels, for political reasons on one side or another.  That leaves us to draw our own conclusions from what we read and what we see and hear in our communities and personal networks.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Fri, 08/14/2020 11:46 am

    The effects of coronavirus vary widely from state to state and sometimes from county to county. People react differently to restrictions based upon their personal experience with the virus. I happen to live in a state where the virus hit early, spread rapidly, and affected two of my personal social circles. I've seen it; a 43 year old man I personally had met was one of the first to die of the virus. People I potlucked and square danced with became seriously ill for weeks. A local church had two-thirds of its choir members come down sick after one in-person practice. With this as my context, it wouldn't matter to me if my pastor opened the church or not--I wouldn't attend. I get some pretty good fellowship with Zoom, and like Habbakuk said, "Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people [the coronoavirus which] who invade[s] us. (Hab 3:16 ESV)" Many pastors and churches see the issue primarily as a health issue; others see it as a constitutional issue. I happen to see it as a health issue. These are tough times for everyone, not just churches. I personally feel some churches are adding to the division and chaos of these days. But, I'm not going to insult them and call them names because we disagree. I'll wait and see how this plays out.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Mon, 08/17/2020 06:13 pm

    Five months into the shut downs, we know a lot more about the virus and who is most susceptible to it. I trust individuals to make responsible health decisions for themselves and their loved ones. I see no reason, at this point, why politicians should be making health decisions for us. I totally agree with you that people don't have to meet in person if they don't want to. That is logical and wise. But to force all low-risk people to stay home, indefinately,  is simply too extreme. This virus just is not so deadly that everyone's lives must be controlled indefinately for fear of it. If it were, you wouldn't need the government micro-managing everyone. We would do it ourselves to protect our lives!

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Tue, 08/18/2020 12:03 am

    Well put Gramma. We each need to decide for ourselves how much risk we take based on our experience, age, and health risks. I liked your reference to the prophets! The invader IS the virus! Blessings to you! 

  • CB
    Posted: Sat, 08/15/2020 11:34 pm
  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Sun, 08/16/2020 11:46 pm

    This reprieve was apparently overturned on Saturday.  The County says that "Outdoor religious observances are permitted; participants must wear cloth face coverings and maintain six feet of distance from each other unless they live in the same household."  What does the health department think about making people sit outside in temperatures over 90 degrees rather than safely distancing inside for church.  Is that a very healthy alternative?  I say require masks and distancing, but let people meet inside where you won't get heat stroke.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 08/17/2020 08:16 am

    Curiously I heard from a friend in the San Diego area whose church is meeting outdoors in compliance with the State's guidelines. Meanwhile, since this is a public area, there is a basketball court nearby. While they sit attending their Sunday morning service, wearing masks and with appropriate (anti) social distancing, there is an intense basketball game in progress. Sweating bodies, lots of contact and heavy breathing; no masks or distancing at all... 


  • GC
    Posted: Mon, 08/17/2020 12:05 pm

    So they have been given an excellent opportunity for witness in their community! Praise the Lord!! Take the gospel to the streets and the parks and the basketball courts! As Paul noted: "...what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel." May we all look for those new opportunities!

  • RC
    Posted: Mon, 08/17/2020 11:52 am

    While we have some knowledge about who is most at risk, still at this point, as far as we know, anyone can be killed by it. The government authorities have to do something to protect lives. As imperfect that that seems to us.  We are in a painful waiting time as the medical/science people rush to figure this out.  But Christ taught us to endure.  So, John Mac. quite complaining and learn to Worship through Zoom and be an example of Christ in enduring, rather than being a rebel.

  • zonie
    Posted: Mon, 08/17/2020 01:44 pm

    "...being a rebel."  That's how the government in China views (and treats) the Church - and all dissent from all quarters.  And that's only one example of how government can exceed its legitimate authority, and it happens in many parts of the world. John MacArthur directly referred to this in the run-up to this situation.  The USA is not immune and is trending in the wrong direction. And every area of science including medicine has become so politicized, who knows what's the truth anymore?  God has not given us a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7) but the government and enemedia certainly have.  Our times are in His hands.  Our God-given liberties?  Who knows how much longer they might endure?

  • not silent
    Posted: Tue, 08/18/2020 05:19 pm

    Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:19:

    "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them."

    In vs 22:

    "To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings."

    In 1 Corinthians 10:23-24:

    "'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful.  "'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up.  Let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor." 

    Finally, Galatians 5:13-15

    "For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' But if you bite and devour one another, be careful that you are not consumed by one another."

    I agree that our liberties are important, but I don't think they should be the most important thing.  I think the gospel and loving others should come first.  We are all in different areas and different situations, and I am not trying to tell anyone how to live; just reminding myself what is most important.  As long as we keep to that, we will know we are in God's will.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Tue, 08/18/2020 10:08 pm

    "...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,” 

    That sounds very nice, but where were the churches last year, or the year before, or the year before that? There will always be and have always been deadly, contagious viruses. Should we cease being around other humans so that none can catch any viruses from us? Tens of thousands die every year from influenza alone, let alone other contagious viruses.

    And what are we saying to our communities when we shut down churches indefinitely? If chruches are that unnecessary, why do we have them at all? The government has deemed them non-essential, and most pastors have appartently agreed. That sends a very strange message to our communities.

  • GC
    Posted: Wed, 08/19/2020 09:53 am

    The church is not the building, so as far as I can see, no one has "shut down churches indefinitely." They are meeting outdoors in parks and parking lots and other public places. Maybe this is God's way of encouraging the Church to "Go into all the world," to shine our lights outside the building into our own little corner of the world.

  •  mizpahlady's picture
    Posted: Wed, 08/19/2020 10:47 am

    One article, a reprint from Martin Luther during a similar time of plague.  His plague was the Black Death which could fell someone in hours just like the 1918 flu.   You would come down with it in the morning and be dead by evening.   This article helped me to see that whatever we do whether we wear masks, social distance while we're aching to hug someone we love at church that is hurting, is loving our neighbor.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Wed, 08/19/2020 02:14 pm

    And there's no connection between this and the fact that "Democrats have dropped religion [from its platgorm] as one of the categories worthy of protection when it comes to civil rights and discrimination," right?    (Jamie Dean, The World and Everything In It, August 18, 2020)

  •  mizpahlady's picture
    Posted: Wed, 08/19/2020 04:54 pm

    Our standing in Christ is not affected by what others do.    Jesus promised his followers that "those that those who live godly in Christ Jesus  will suffer persecution."  We have lived so long in a bubble of toleration? when everyone else in closed countries are undergoing terrible things.   So they drop it from the platform.  Politics cannot save us or guarantee us an easy time of it.   Their agenda does not define us as Christians, does it?  Do we honestly expect the many who are not followers of Christ to respond to us, as we are expected and directed to respond to those outside the faith?  I'm not trying to be controversial here---just Biblical.   

    Col 4:5-6 NASB  Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.  (6)  Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Wed, 08/19/2020 08:08 pm

    mizphalady, I get it.  I'm just saying there's obviously more to this than just setting aside our liberties temporarily for the common good.  At some point we're going to have to stop just rolling over every time the state issues another edict and decide to obey God and not man.  We might not be there yet.  The restrictions vary from state to state. John MacArthur evidently believes the state of California has gone too far.