A judge today rejected a request by Los Angeles County to hold Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in contempt for defying county restrictions and holding indoor worship services.
Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff rejected the county’s request filed earlier today to impose more than $20,000 in fines on both the church and MacArthur.
Thomas More Society Attorney Jenna Ellis, who’s representing MacArthur and Grace, said in a statement that she was pleased with the outcome. Yet she noted that the county again intends to seek a restraining order against MacArthur and his Sun Valley, California, megachurch.
“LA County continues to harass and target Pastor MacArthur,” Ellis said. “Having failed to get a court order to shut down the church they have sought three times, they’re going to try again by hauling us back into court. . . . We will simply continue to defend our client’s constitutionally protected rights because church is essential.”
Meanwhile, the county said in a statement that it was grateful that Judge Beckloff had “upheld the validity” of its health order, which Grace had “challenged as unconstitutional.”
“This is a matter of life and death for our most vulnerable residents as we continue to battle this pandemic,” the county said.
Today’s ruling is the latest in a back-and-forth legal battle between government officials and Grace Community Church that began several weeks ago.
On July 26, Grace began holding indoor services, asserting in a statement from MacArthur that the church had a biblical duty to remain open.
Ten days later, government authorities responded with a cease-and-desist letter, threatening Grace with $1,000 or arrest if the church continued to gather indoors. (The county imposed no restriction on gathering outdoors.)
After a second lockdown order, Grace filed a lawsuit, arguing that California was applying an “unequal” restriction on the church’s free exercise of religion. The lawsuit argued that the state was applying a double standard by allowing racial protests to go unchecked, while simultaneously restricting religious gatherings.
Last Friday, a Superior Court Judge ruled in Grace’s favor and said the church could continue to hold indoor services. However, he asked that worshippers wear masks and social distance.
MacArthur responded that the church was “happy for a few weeks to comply and respect what the judge has asked of us.”
However, the next day, a California Appellate Court reversed that ruling and ordered that the church not meet indoors.
Grace met anyway, and MacArthur told the congregation, “The good news is that you’re here. You’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks.”
Today, the county accused MacArthur and Grace in its contempt application of “willfully” violating two court orders and “placing themselves and the community at large in grave risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.”
It added that the “enjoyment of all rights are subject” to “reasonable conditions” deemed essential to the health and safety of the community. And it accused MacArthur and Grace of “placing their right to worship indoors above the health and welfare of County residents.”
Attorney Ellis replied by calling the county’s request of the court an “unconstitutional attack against Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church.” She added, “Pastor MacArthur is standing firm that church is essential and has no plans to yield to this tyrannical board.”
A hearing on the county’s request to prohibit indoor services is set for Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court.