LOS ANGELES — Renowned pastor John MacArthur, who leads Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, has filed suit against Gov. Gavin Newsom, officials with the Los Angeles County Health Department and others, to challenge the prohibition on in-person church services, over which he is being threatened with fines and/or jail time.
“Defendants’ mandates are not ‘narrowly tailored’ to further any compelling governmental interest,” the lawsuit states. “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.”
“Defendants have also provided a de facto exemption for protests against the unjust death of George Floyd, without extending the same solicitude to Plaintiffs’ religious gatherings,” it continues. “Since these gatherings may be permitted, there can be no doubt that Defendants must also permit Plaintiffs to engage in religious activities and services.”
The legal challenge also contends that requiring Grace Community Church “to only engage in state-approved religious worship, such as outdoors, or without singing, or without the full congregation in attendance, violates Plantiffs’ free exercise rights under the California Constitution” and “cannot satisfy strict scrutiny because California permits other industries and activities to proceed unhindered.”
As previously reported, on July 13, Gov. Newsom decided to again close indoor dining, movie theaters, bars, and similar venues due to concerns over the continued spread of the novel coronavirus. 31 counties that were of particular concern were also ordered to close barbershops, salons, malls, gyms, and to cease holding indoor church services.
Some churches decided to consequently meet outside. MacArthur and Grace Community Church elders, who had previously closed the building for a number of weeks in compliance with government orders earlier this year, pondered how to respond to the second shutdown.
In a subsequent statement, the church concluded that they have a duty before God to stay open.
“As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings,” it said. “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
Church leadership said they complied with the initial prohibition on in-person services in the spring because they did not know at that time “the true severity of the virus” and they believe it is “legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.”
But because “[i]t is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared” and cancellations of 2021 public events signaled that shutdowns would drag out into next year, the church felt that California had “force[d] churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials.”
MacArthur therefore proceeded to hold indoor meetings as usual throughout the month of July, delivering a sermon entitled “We Must Obey God Rather Than Men”.
However, the County of Los Angeles soon issued MacArthur and Grace Community Church a cease and desist letter, threatening a daily fine of $1,000 and/or arrest for continuing to hold indoor church services.
“The County requests that you 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, written by attorney Jason Tokoro, states. “If you or Grace Community Church continue to hold indoor services in violation of the law, you are subject to criminal and civil liability.”
“We hoped that Los Angeles County would see its error on its own, but after attempted negotiations with their counsel, California is still intent on targeting churches — specifically, Grace Community Church,” attorney Jenna Ellis, private counsel to President Donald Trump, who is representing MacArthur, said in a statement.
“Pastor MacArthur and the board of elders will stand firm in their leadership and resolve that church is essential, and California has no legitimate power to enforce such onerous and unconstitutional restrictions against the fundamentally protected right to freely participate in church,” she said.
“After Grace Community Church voluntarily complied with state orders for nearly six months, California’s edicts demanding an indefinite shut down have gone now far past rational or reasonable and are firmly in the territory of tyranny and discrimination.”