Los Angeles church, pastor win in court Friday, can continue indoor services judge rules

Temporary order defies L.A. County COVID-19 orders; full hearing on September 4; only applies to that church, for now

On Thursday, August 13, Thomas More Society Special Counsel Jenna Ellis and attorney Charles LiMandri filed suit in the Superior Court of the State of California County of Los Angeles on behalf of Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church against Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and other California and Los Angeles County public health officials. (See complaint)

On Friday, the California Court vindicated Pastor MacArthur and the church’s stance that church is essential by recognizing the constitutionally protected right of churches to remain open and hold indoor services in their sanctuary.

Hours after Grace Community Church filed suit to invalidate Los Angeles County’s unconstitutional restrictions on churches, the County filed for a temporary restraining order to force the church to stop holding indoor services and comply with every unreasonable and over-broad demand. At hearing today (Friday, August 14, 2020) in Los Angeles Superior Court, Judge Chalfant denied almost all of the County’s requests, agreeing with Pastor MacArthur and the Church that it is the County’s burden to show why it should be permitted to infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of churches to freely exercise religion. The judge did also express concern for some safety protocols.

To address those concerns and after explaining that the County was being unreasonable in its demands, counsel for Grace Community Church offered to comply with mask wearing and social distancing indoors until the matter could be fully heard, rather than the County simply rushing to shut down the Church. The judge agreed this was reasonable, set the full hearing for September 4, 2020, and ordered the Church to have congregants wear masks and social distance between family groups indoors.

Pastor John MacArthur said of the ruling, “I am very grateful the Court has allowed us to meet inside and we are happy for a few weeks to comply and respect what the judge has asked of us because he is allowing us to meet. This vindicates our desire to stay open and serve our people. This also gives us an opportunity to show that we are not trying to be rebellious or unreasonable, but that we will stand firm to protect our church against unreasonable, unconstitutional restrictions.”

Attorney Ellis said, “This is a huge vindication for Pastor John and the Board of Elders at Grace Community Church, who have simply asked for their right to worship the Lord together in church to be acknowledged and protected. When I spoke with Pastor John after the hearing, he expressed sincere gratitude to the California Court and Judge Chalfant and said his congregation will be happy to comply with the judge’s temporary order. This is why John MacArthur is so deeply loved and respected by his congregation and all over the world. He is a gracious and firm leader, and his biblical stand for church being essential has now been rightly validated. We look forward to continuing to advocate on his behalf in asking the Court to protect the fundamental rights of churches.”

Legal counsel LiMandri said, “This result is indeed a great victory for all citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of religion. Pastor MacArthur’s love of God and country motivated him and all the GCC church elders to resist the unjust government shut-down orders targeting people of faith. Their devotion and patriotism has brought about a result that respects the legitimate interests of both the church and state. This result makes it possible for the thousands of congregants of GCC to continue to gather together in their church to worship, while at the same time honoring the court’s requirement that reasonable and temporary safety measures be observed. This court ruling should stay in effect at least until there can be a full court hearing in this case on September 4, 2020. Please continue to pray that the courts allow this enlightened judge’s decision to stand so that all Californians can soon resume the worship of God in their respective churches.”

“We are simply continuing to do today what we have done for the past 63 years, that Grace Community Church has been open to welcome the Los Angeles community and serve their spiritual needs,” the pastor said in a statement. “We will remain open and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who decide they want to come worship with us.”

The suit seeks to prohibit California from enforcing its unconstitutional and onerous coronavirus pandemic regulations against Grace Community Church and seeks a judgment that the health orders violate the California Constitution.

“Having irreparably damaged the confidence of Americans—and Californians especially—who now realize that the pandemic restrictions are neither necessary nor good, on Sunday, July 26, 2020, Grace Community Church decided to resume worship services—joining millions of Americans in deciding that enough is enough. With deaths from the ‘COVID-19 suicide pandemic’ exceeding those from the actual coronavirus pandemic, Grace Community Church decided that it would no longer sit by and watch its congregants and their children suffer from an absence of religious worship and instruction. Perhaps unsurprisingly—perhaps not—this led the County of Los Angeles to submit a demand letter to Grace Community Church, ordering it to comply with the restrictions that Los Angeles County deems unnecessary to enforce against so many others. Grace Community Church does not intend to comply.”

According to attorneys for the church, it is time for California to recognize that Christians are not second-class citizens, and the court must step in to do its job in applying the protections that the U.S. and California State constitutions provide to every individual equally and to churches in particular.

Pastor MacArthur opened the Sunday morning service on August 9, welcoming worshippers to “the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.” He was met with a standing ovation and extended applause from the congregation. Pastor MacArthur said of the lawsuit, “We are simply continuing to do today what we have done for the past 63 years, that Grace Community Church has been open to welcome the Los Angeles community and serve their spiritual needs. We will remain open and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who decide they want to come worship with us.”

Ellis said, “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. 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. 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. This isn’t about health. It’s about blatantly targeting churches.”

LiMandri stated, “It is unconstitutional for Governor Newsom and the State of California to discriminate against churches by treating them less favorably than other organizations and activities that are not protected by the First Amendment. Pastor MacArthur and his church, as well as all churches, are entitled to practice their religion without government interference. This is especially the case when the government has given free rein to protestors, and is not similarly restricting marijuana dispensaries, large retail outlets and factories, or abortion providers. The government orders are also unconstitutional because there is no compelling need for the onerous restrictions on the churches at this time. The hospitals are not overwhelmed and the percentage death rate from COVID-19 is now extremely small. It is time for Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti to recognize what President Trump has already proclaimed: churches are providing an ‘essential’ service to the people. Therefore, they must be allowed to serve the people in the manner in which God has called them.”

Read the Thomas More Society’s Complaint filed with the Superior Court for the State of California County of Los Angeles – in Grace Community Church and Pastor John MacArthur v. Gavin Newsome et al., on August 12, 2020, here.

Read the Demand Letter sent to Pastor John MacArthur by attorney Jason Tokoro, representing the County of Los Angeles in California, on July 29, 2020, here.

 

 

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