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 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.