Grace Community Church, under the leadership of well-known pastor and teacher John MacArthur, held morning and evening services on Sunday, August 16. In doing so, the church defied a last-minute appellate court decree upholding a Los Angeles County health order “prohibiting indoor religious services.’”
To ongoing applause and cheering from the congregation, MacArthur explained, “We’re not meeting because we want to be rebellious, we’re meeting because our Lord has commanded us to come together and worship Him.”
The services followed weeks of conflict between state and county health officials and the church, including letters threatening fines and imprisonment, a lawsuit against state and county officials, and conflicting court decisions.
The saga began back in July when Grace Community began hosting in-person services after months of coronavirus lockdown orders. County officials found out and had attorneys send a “cease and desist” letter to the church. The county asked the church to “immediately cease holding indoor worship services or other indoor gatherings, and adhere to the Health Officer Order directives governing activities at houses of worship.”
The letter stated, “While having the ability to conduct outdoor and virtual services, Grace Community Church conducted indoor in-person services on July 26, 2020, violating the State and County health orders. Violating these orders is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to 90 days.” Each day of indoor services is a separate offense.
On Wednesday, August 12, MacArthur and Grace Community filed a lawsuit against California Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and other California and Los Angeles County public health officials. The lawsuit was filed by attorneys from the legal aid group Thomas More and the law firm LiMandri and Jonna, LLP.
The suit begins by quoting Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.” It goes on to state that “the American people have begun to see that they are being ‘kicked’ by their own government,” and they see how “onerous restrictions imposed by public officials to allegedly fight the COVID-19 pandemic simply do not apply to certain, favored groups.” Grace Community argues that this is a violation of First Amendment liberties.
The complaint goes on to enumerate a number of groups that are not subject to the same state and county lockdowns applied to churches, including political protestors who were encouraged by government officials to “‘express’ their ‘rage’ so the public could ‘hear it.’” The lawsuit says this shows “blatant favoritism” of protestors over religious congregations.
Grace Community alleges that health restrictions are applied in an arbitrary manner, “Defendants have granted numerous special exemptions to their bans on public gatherings and conduct, including for purportedly ‘essential’ businesses and activities, including, for example, cannabis dispensaries, abortion and other medical providers, daycare and childcare, and shopping.”
MacArthur said the church and county had been in negotiations, with the church agreeing last week to have members wear masks and practice social distancing in indoor services for three weeks.
But that wasn’t enough for county health officials. Just hours after Grace Community filed its lawsuit, L.A County “filed for a temporary restraining order to force the church to stop holding indoor services and comply with unreasonable and over-broad demands,” according to the Thomas More Society
County officials lost that first round. Thomas More said, “Judge James Chalfant denied almost all of the county’s requests at the August 14 Los Angeles Superior Court hearing, agreeing with MacArthur and the church that it is the county’s burden to show why they should be permitted to infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of churches to freely exercise religion.”
The county appealed, and won that decision, which brings us up to Sunday morning, where MacArthur’s church met in person, indoors, disobeying the prohibition. MacArthur said state and county officials “don’t want us to meet – that’s obvious.”
“They’re not willing to work with us. They just want to shut us down,” he continued. “We’re here to bring honor to the Lord. They’re not our enemy, we understand this.”
Going forward then, there are two separate cases: Grace Community’s lawsuit against state and county officials, and the appellate court order banning the church from meeting. The latter case is scheduled for a hearing on September 4.
Meanwhile, MacArthur gave a charge to church members, “The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders, for their salvation, we need to be faithful to do that.” That’s a good reminder for all of us in these troubled and contentious times.
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