Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Pressure mounts on California congregation

Religious Liberty | Court bars John MacArthur’s church from indoor worship
by Steve West
Posted 9/14/20, 12:39 pm

Los Angeles County won the latest round in its battle with Grace Community Church over coronavirus-related gathering restrictions, but Pastor John MacArthur preached to a packed house on Sunday despite the court ruling against him.

“We’re under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he says to have church, and we will,” he told CNN on Thursday, the same day LA Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff temporarily barred the church from holding indoor worship. He ruled the county’s health restriction on gatherings did not target religion because it applied to all activities where people congregate indoors for long periods of time. He noted that U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, in a case earlier this summer, found California’s guidelines did not violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

MacArthur has repeatedly voiced skepticism about the pandemic and criticized the government for restricting worship. Grace Community initially abided by restrictions, he said, but after a few weeks, people began returning to services at the 3,000-seat worship center without any encouragement from church leaders. He has led in-person services since late July. “More and more of our people and other people were coming to the conclusion that this was a manufactured pandemic,” MacArthur told American Family Radio on Thursday.

Before last week’s ruling, the county used other methods to clamp down on the popular pastor and the church in Sun Valley, Calif. On Aug. 28, county officials told the church of their plans to terminate a lease for a parking lot the congregation had used for 45 years. Earlier this week, the county slapped a $1,000 fine on Grace Community for allegedly violating a sign ordinance. The church posted signs asking congregants not to enter if they had an elevated temperature, a cough, or any flu-like symptoms, but the county said the church did not post the signs in the right place and did not include other health warnings

Charles LiMandri, special counsel to The Thomas More Society and one of MacArthur’s attorneys, accused Beckloff of failing to apply strict scrutiny to the government’s restrictions on worship as Supreme Court precedent requires. He also faulted Beckloff for sidestepping the argument that “churches have been treated as second-class citizens compared to the tens of thousands of protesters.”

Weighing various statements by experts for the church and county, Beckloff wrote that “differences of professional opinions do not undermine the county’s showing of a likelihood of success on its claim.”

MacArthur slammed the ruling: “One–one hundredth of 1 percent of Californians with a virus apparently wins over the U.S. Constitution and religious freedom for all? That is not what our founders said. Nor is that what God says.”

Christian theologians and pastors have had varying responses to state health mandates that constrain worship services. Brad Littlejohn, who teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College and writes about Christian ethics, argued that, with a few exceptions, most orders apply the same standards to everyone and churches should follow them. He suggested Christians push for equal enforcement of the rules for everyone’s safety. And he criticized Grace Community’s leaders for framing their disobedience to California’s limits as a duty required by Scripture.

“They elevated a difficult prudential question to a gospel issue, tacitly accusing the thousands of pastors who formed different judgments in different circumstances of cowardice and unfaithfulness,” Littlejohn wrote for the Davenant Institute.

Jenna Ellis, also special counsel to the Thomas More Society, said the church would appeal the ruling. Otherwise, the state’s incursion on religious rights could go unchecked, she said: “Church is essential, and no government agent has the runaway, unlimited power to force churches to close indefinitely.”


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Steve West

Steve is an attorney and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet or at his blog.

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  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 10:04 am

    “More and more of our people and other people were coming to the conclusion that this was a manufactured pandemic,” MacArthur told American Family Radio on Thursday.

    What do Mr. MacArthur's people mean by “manufactured”?  Using the word "manufactured" sounds more like a wishy-washy politician. If these people mean faked or made-up, they should just say it.  What evidence do all these unnamed people have?  Manufactured by whom?  Manufactured for what purpose? 

    If this crisis was manufactured, why did New York have a sudden increase of dead bodies back in April?  Why did the number of unclaimed dead, being buried on Heart Island, rise from about 25 a week to about 25 a day? What part of that was faked?

    My goal is not to be disrespectful to Mr. MacArthur, rather to point out the errors from his sources.  From what I can tell, he is a excellent teacher of the Bible. Some say he should retire bacause he is 81, I disagree, as long as he is able, he should continue as a pastor.   

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 01:56 am

    There are people who are exploiting the coronavirus trying to use it as a political weapon. They are trying to shut down the economy, claim Trump is incompetent and force our churches to stay closed. They seek to keep the schools closed and they don't take into account the scientific evidence. If we get herd immunity among the healthy, we will likely see a drastic decline in the pandemic. You should show more respect for Pastor MacArthur for he is under attack by a godless government set on shutting him down. 

  • HANNAH.
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 10:59 pm

    RC, perhaps this will answer some of your questions: Dr. Li-Meng Yan -- a Chinese virologist -- worked "in the WHO reference lab which is the top coronavirus lab in the world, in the University of Hong Kong." According to an interview: "The Chinese government intentionally manufactured and released the COVID-19 virus that led to mass shutdowns and deaths across the world ..."
    https://www.foxnews.com/media/chinese-virologist-government-intentionally-coronavirus

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 01:10 pm

    By manufactured, MacArthur isn't saying that the disease isn't real, but that the hysteria and crisis is manufactured for political purposes.  He also points out that less than one hundredth of a percent (0.01) of positive cases result in death.  And CDC figures that show only 6% of deaths from Covid are from that cause alone.  For this reason, it isn't a pandemic, he argues.  I disagree with that, since pandemic just means widespread or worldwide.  These points are at least debatable.  If someone has several comorbidities, which one killed him?  A motorcycle death in Florida was attributed to Covid.  So the statistics aren't entirely reliable.

  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 08:55 am

    According to the American Family Radio interview with Mr. MacArthur, he said that the Covid-19 death rate is 1 100th of 1%. That in decimal form is .0001

    The population of the USA is about 321,000,000. That number multiplied by .0001 is 32,100. Since over 194,000 have died from Covid-19, that makes Mr. MacArthur’s source for the .0001, death rate, in error.  

    According to the CDC about 9,000 have died directly from Covid-19. Obviously, the existence of the co-morbidity, from other diseases, were helped along by Covid-19 to kill those people, if it did not kill them directly. In other words, without Covid-19 how many of the 194,000 would still be alive?  

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 01:42 am

    I think you need to re-examine your math RC! Is he talking about the healthy or those who have pre-conditions that make them susceptible to the virus! Allowing the young and healthy to go to church is not problematic! 

  • BobK
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 09:27 am

    RC You are correct.  The more accurate number nationally is .0006 not .0001 as MacArthur stated.  In California the number is less than .0004 (14,419 deaths for a population of 39.5 million).  It is easy to exaggerate when trying to prove your point, but I don't think any exaggeration here is needed. The bottom line MacArthur is making is that while it is a serious illness, it is not as deadly as many make it out to be.  And there is not just one clear "best approach" for dealing with it.  Quarentining the vulnerable and allowing the healthy to get it and develop some kind of herd immunity is a legitamate strategy that may be better than the present course.  I have a number of healthy, under 50-yr. old friends who have gotten Covid and their symptoms were like that of a cold or flu - or no symptoms at all.  I had a 70+ yr. old friend with heart problems get it and he was in ICU for weeks and barely survived and his wife who was in the end stages of Alzheimer's died from it.  It's easy to over-react and be polarized on this issue.

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 01:34 pm

    MacArthur may be imprecise with his math, but what he intends to say is not 0.0001, but 0.01 or 0.02.  We know this from other ways he has stated this, saying that 99.99% or 99.98% survive.  

  • not silent
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 11:56 am

    I would agree that there are a lot of people exploiting COVID as a political weapon. But I don't understand how misrepresenting statisical data or using inflammatory (and confusing) language like "manufactured pandemic" is an effective way to stand up to a "godless government."  If it's wrong for politicians to exploit COVID, how is it okay for pastors to misrepresent or distort scientific data?  Who will care about truth if WE don't?  And how will anyone believe us when we try to tell them THE TRUTH (i.e., the gospel)?

    Regardless of percentages, there have been HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DEATHS in this country that were related to COVID. Some of them were close relatives of friends of mine.  One person I know, who is healthy and under 65, almost died from COVID and now has permanent lung damage.  Young, healthy people may not usually have much risk from COVID; but they don't live in isolation.  Every young person I know has contact with older people and/or with people who ARE at risk (that includes kids who are in school). I am in the health field, and I can hardly believe that Christians are going public and acting as if this is not a big deal or is made up. 

    I have family and friends who are not believers.  Jesus said, "By this everyone wil know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."  The world is watching this, and they do not see it as loving.  We don't have to "please" the world, and there will always be people who are offended by the gospel itself; but it's quite another thing for them to be offended by Christians misrepresenting data and acting in ways that might cause them harm!  This is being presented as necessary for our freedom, but I fear it will actually cause increased persecution.  

    I have stood for years against misinformation about the Bible and Christianity online by atheists, and I must also stand against misinformation from believers. I have always respected John MacArthur, and I STILL respect him.  Even the most godly and intelligent people can be deceived or mistaken at times. It doesn't take away from their accomplishments and achievements; it's just part of being human. Galatians 2: says, "When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned."  Paul confronted PETER, of all people, when he was mistaken about something.  

      With God's help, I hope to always be willing to stand for the gospel and his kingdom; but I truly do not see how this advances either one.  

  • Bob R
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 04:19 pm

    I wonder if you have any criticism of those in authority who have claimed that it's "safe" for thousands of people to gather to "protest" (code for burning, looting, and other forms of violence) in spite of the pandemic?

  • not silent
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 08:06 pm

    For Bob R, I will attempt to answer your question re if I had any criticism of those in authority who have claimed that it's "safe" for thousands of people to protest. But first, a few disclaimers. I have a degree in science from one of the top research universities in the US, and they taught us a LOT about medical research.  I worked in healthcare for many years and have dealt with pathogens of various kinds in hospitals. Because of my background, I can't help focusing on the scientific and medical aspects of this; and I try to balance everything I do with what is best for God's kingdom and the gospel. 

    At the same time, I am well aware of how this is being used politically:  i.e., I have family and friends on the "left" who take every opportunity to point out the failures of any republicans while ignoring any failures of democrats, but I also have friends on the "right" who point out all failures of democrats while ignoring any failures by republicans. Ironically, they all think they are perfectly objective and that only the OTHER side is biased; but they ALL look biased to me. 

    I'm sure I have my own biases, but it looks to me as if there have been plenty of failures by democrats AND by republicans.  Considering the complexity of our nation and out society plus the changing level of knowledge about this brand new virus, it would be impossible NOT to have failures.  Also, for some reason, our society seems to be in a place where expectations are extremely high but there is very little grace or forgiveness.  Instead of acknowledging mistakes, learning from them, and making things right when necessary, there is a tendency to deny them, cover them up, and point to the other guy. I'm not blaming anyone for this-I think it's just human nature.

    Now, to answer your question: there have been many different people in authority who have made a wide variety of statements about protestors.  I am not personally aware of anyone saying that it was "safe" for thousands to protest.  (SOMEONE may well have said it, but I can't address the situation without knowing the circumstances.)  Someone close to me who is very far left wing has said that the general view is that it is important to allow people to protest but that all protestors should wear masks.  That particular person made it clear that they mean PEACEFUL protesting and NOT rioting/looting/violence, etc; and they personally chose not to protest in person to protect friends and family who are at higher risk from COVID.

    I think the rules should be applied equally, as much as possible; and that we should go by what the experts (i.e., the CDC) are recommending. They recommend masks AND social distancing.  These things may change over time because science and medicine change. 

    As such, I have been concerned about the spread of COVID from large gatherings of protestors; but I haven't actually seen evidence that those gatherings are responsible for spreading the virus.  (I HAVE seen evidence that church gatherings, weddings, open bars, and parties were responsible for spreading it.)  To be fair, most protests have happened outside and most peaceful protestors I've seen were wearing masks. Based on an earlier World article which said that John MacArthur's church is now allowed to meet outside as long as the congregants wear masks and follow social distancing, the situation seems much more equitable than it was. 

    In conclusion: things may still be unfair, and I care about fairness; but I think being good witnesses, loving our neighbors, and demonstrating the love of Christ are more important than demanding our rights and making sure we are always treated fairly.  Like I said at the beginning, I can't help focusing on the science and on helping advance God's kingdom. Politics is important but not as important as the gospel.       

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 08:17 pm

    We have to at least agree that the response to this virus is unprecedented and will continue indefinately. The US and entire world has never responded to any previous "novel" viruses as they have to this one.That creates skepticism in people. Why this one? The numbers are sketchy, the politicians are inconsistent in their endless rules and guidelines concerning this virus, many are outright breaking their own rules or not trusting them enough to open schools, liquor stores are essential, hair solons not... And this will continue until a vaccine is found, if ever it is. For how long do we give up our freedoms? I'm conviced that if I were elderly and infirm, I would not want all the healthy, younger people putting their lives on hold indefinately to protect me from one of many viruses out there that will kill me. 

  • not silent
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 09:38 pm

    For Nanamiro: I agree that this response is unprecedented.  I'm sure we will look back some day and figure out better ways we could have handled it. But now, because it's a new illness (not only is the science complicated, there there are many additional complicating factors with a large and diverse country like ours), we are literally having to figure it out as we go.  It's hard and frustrating for all of us.  It hasn't helped that the situation has been politicized from the very beginning.  It also doesn't help that it's becoming harder to know who to trust to tell us the truth.

    No one likes to give up freedoms, and it's harder with something we literally can't see.  (I'm thinking of the sacrifices made in the World Wars, which were prompted by a much more visible and obvious threat.  I'm also thinking of how united we were immediately after September 11, 2001 and how we became divided again so soon afterwards.)

    I guess what's really bugging me is that CHRISTIANS, of all people, seem so unwilling to sacrifice convenience, freedom, etc, but instead we want our rights. I am struggling with the thing myself.  Instead of trusting God, sometimes I look to the world or the government or whoever to make things fair and keep me comfortable.  But the world is broken.  The only true savior is Jesus; and he never promised that things on earth would be fair, convenient, or comfortable-if anything, he said the opposite. 

    In the Narnia books, by CS Lewis, some children find themselves in a place where the animals talk. They are hosted by beavers, who tell them Aslan, the true king of Narnia, is coming.  When they find out he is a LION, they are afraid and ask if it's safe to meet a lion.  The beavers respond, "Who said anything about safe?  Course he isn't safe!  But he's good."  (My point is that we have unrealistic expectations about what it means to follow God.  It's not predictable or safe, but it's the way of salvation and the only way to true joy.)

    Jim Eliot, who was killed bringing the gospel to the Waodani People, wrote: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." Philippians 2:5-8 says: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."  

    So, yes, it's unprecedented.  Yes, a lot of mistakes have been made. It's hard, but it's helping me realize how much I've trusted the world instead of God.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 04:01 am

    But I don't understand how misrepresenting statisical data or using inflammatory (and confusing) language like "manufactured pandemic" is an effective way to stand up to a "godless government." 
     

    You talk a lot about being Christian in our behavior but you show Pastor MacArthur little grace accusing him of misrepresenting statistics when he probably read an article based on some other data which he remembered. The point he is making is that the virus is much less lethal than originally assumed, which is a very accurate statement.

    You also accuse him of using "inflammatory language" when he is just stating the situation the way he sees it when he uses the term "manufactured pandemic".  Let me ask you in what ways is it manufactured? I see it "manufactured" by the zeal that many politicians are using it to shut down their communities, schools, churches, and businesses. The next minute these same politicians are supporting looters, rioters, and protesters who they view as their allies where they attack police, spit in their face and resist the commands of police to disperse because of curfews. I really don't understand how rioters throwing ice bottles of water are protesters. I don't see how people pointing high powered lasers into the eyes of police are peaceful. I don't understand how rioters attempting to burn down a government building in Portland Oregon are considered protesters.  They are more like terrorists!
     

    If you watch the liberal news they attack Trump 24/7 trying to say he did a terrible job on the pandemic response which is anything but accurate.  He shut down the travelers coming in from China early on preventing the spread of the pandemic. He has consulted the medical experts and sought their advice when it was sometimes contradictory. Trump consoled us and let the different experts speak for long periods of time. Trump has been open and transparent from early on and now the liberal media sends out an unceasing voice claiming Trump was negligent in the COVID-19 response, which is a gross lie. Clearly this is a political attack by the left using a "manufactured pandemic" to attempt to bring him down. The same attack has occurred against Pastor MacArthur but in another form - government harassment. Fines have been imposed because warning signs aren't positioned just so. The county is trying to rescind the parking rights for the church. 

     

  • not silent
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 11:29 am

    For Cyborg, I'm sorry you felt that my comment lacked grace.  I guess I'm still trying to find a balance between grace and truth.

    I admit that I've written a lot on this thread, and you may have missed where I wrote, "I have always respected John MacArthur, and I STILL respect him.  Even the most godly and intelligent people can be deceived or mistaken at times."  Unless I've misunderstood you, this seems to agree with your own statement: "he probably read an article based on some other data he remembered." 

    I will also explain why I felt that the term "manufactured pandemic" is inflammatory.  Although I have heard reports that the virus was created in a lab, I have also heard that the report has been disputed.  Since there is some dispute, I think it's premature to use that as a reason to present the virus as a "manufactured pandemic."  I hope we find out the truth at some point, but it doesn't alter our CURRENT situation.  The term "manufactured pandemic" also seems to imply that it's not "really" a pandemic or that it's not serious.  There are medical and scientific criteria to determine when a pathogen is considered a "pandemic," and this one meets those criteria.  I have shared my personal experiences (several times, in fact) to show that I'm not just taking anyone's word that this is serious-it's evident based on my own personal experience.  

    I hear loudly and clearly that you have a problem with people who are considered "peaceful protestors" but who are engaging in rioting, looting, violence, and killing; and I hope you realize from my earlier comments on here and on numerous other articles that I agree with you that those are not productive or peaceful. (I know people personally who are extremely left-wing, and they ALSO agree.)  The fact that some people have taken advantage of the perfect storm of issues we have had this year (i.e,. a virus, racial injustice, etc) and tried to use them to advance their own goals or political agendas does not mean that the original problems were not real.  Unfortunately, there have always been people who tried to take advantage in times of crisis and chaos.

    I would not be surprised if people are trying to use this to harm Christians and the church, but we make it easier for them to attack us when we seem to be unloving and repeat info that is inconsistent with scientific data. If we are going to be persecuted, let's at least make sure it's for the right reasons. It's very challenging to figure out how to live in these times.  I feel a great need to keep praying for God's guidance.

    We don't have to agree on everything, Cyborg; but I think we can agree that we are living in challenging times and that we have to keep seeking the Lord and his will.    

  • Bob R
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 03:29 pm

    Not Silent.

     Thanks for your reply.  Apparently, not all those in the medical profession agree with you.  Consider the following from CNN:

    https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/05/health/health-care-open-letter-protests-c...

     

  • not silent
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 03:55 pm

    For Bob R, thanks for the link and the additional info.  I am honestly not surprised that there are healthcare workers who disagree with me. That's been happening my whole life (you should hear my colleagues and me "talking shop"!)  I can't control what other people think; all I can do is tell you what I think and why. 

    It's getting harder to know who to trust these days, but I try to listen and consider things prayerfully.  Blessings.

  • Bob R
    Posted: Tue, 09/15/2020 04:13 pm

    If you read LIttlejohn's full statement, he reveals his political leanings with the assertion that: "Truly, there are precious few kings in America today, men of wisdom, courage, and discernment who can command loyalty and trust. You won’t find one in the White House,..."

    Clearly, he sides far more with the left than with fundamental conservatism. Enough said.

  •  dcsfoyle's picture
    dcsfoyle
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 12:59 pm

    Our president is brash, bold, and almost certainly courageous. He is not wise or discerning -- I'm honestly surprised that anyone would defend him as such.

    That aside, this idea that anyone who doesn't like Trump is obviously "not conservative" is as absurd and offensive as Biden saying unless you vote Democrat you're "not black".

  • Bob R
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 03:52 pm

    There are really only two philosophical options when considering the presidential election; one which adheres to conservative values, the other blatantly socialist-to-Marxist in their beliefs.  They promote abortion on demand, (up to and including birth), confusion and perversion of God’s design for human sexuality, redistribution of wealth, government take-over of health care, massive spending on “climate change”, and curtailing production of fossil fuels. 

    They also support BLM Incorporated, a self-proclaimed Marxist organization, intent on destroying America through defunding (abolishing) police, no-cash bail (which amounts to “catch-and-release” for career criminals), abolishing prisons, and the intent to “…disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure…”

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 01:30 pm

    How should the church respond to widespread misinformation that is being used to isolate and divide Christians and the country?  Different churches respond in different ways and that's fine.  But why do we disparage MacArthur's response, when not a single person in his 7,000+ congregation have the disease?

    This is an election year, and so everything we are told is political.  The party responsible for devastating under-privilege in inner cities creates a narrative blaming white privilege in order to increase the black vote.  The party responsible for politically motivated forest mismanagement blames CA fires on climate change.  Hurricanes, riots and disease are all blamed on Trump.

    The party that spent four years trying to overturn the last election is calling the chaos, mayhem, rioting and burning and tearing down national history “the summer of peace and love”.  Obama praised the protesters as patriots, making no distinction for rioters.  Portraying the country in smoldering ruins and prolonging the shutdown of the economy is entirely political.

    How then should the church respond to the lies perpetrated by the Prince of Lies?

  • not silent
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 04:02 pm

    For Xion, unfortunately you are probably right that (almost) everything we are being told is political.  I think you are also right that misinformation is being used to divide Christians and the country.  It's quite discouraging.

    I think your question was rhetorical, but I would like to offer an answer: I think the way the church should respond is with repentance, prayer, and pleading for God's wisdom and intervention.  It's very hard to know how to live in these challenging times, and I know I need prayer. Blessings...

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