The heavyweight constitutional battle between Los Angeles County and Pastor John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church continues, with LA County scoring the latest victory.
On Thursday, a judge ruled that the county could shut down the church, issuing a preliminary injunction prohibiting the church from holding indoor services until the case gets sorted out in the courts.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff said the church must be in compliance with LA County’s physical distancing rules, according to The Christian Post.
In an 18-page decision, Beckloff said that the county displayed “a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims” and that the “balance of harms tips in its favor.”
A final decision, at least at the California Superior Court level, is expected this week, according to the Washington Free Beacon.
“The potential consequences of community spread of COVID-19 and concomitant risk of death to members of the community — associated and unassociated with the Church — outweighs the harm that flows from the restriction on indoor worship caused by the County Health Order,” the judge wrote.
The congregation has been meeting in person since last month, despite orders from Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom that churches in some counties remain shuttered for indoor services.
It doesn’t help that Los Angeles County has proved remarkably petty in the matter.
Officials haven’t just sought to shut down the church, which is problematic in and of itself. They’ve fined the church for not having county-mandated social distancing signs in the right place and terminated the church’s lease on a parking lot they’ve held for decades.
They’ve even threatened MacArthur with arrest, because nothing will calm the waters more than booking a pastor for daring to have his flock meet in person.
The county’s statement in the wake of the decision is a pretty representative sample of the attitude we’re dealing with here.
“We went to court only after significant efforts to work with the leaders of Grace Community Church to protect public health,” the statement said, according to the Free Beacon.
“We now look forward to working with church leaders on a plan to move services outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings, which will allow worshipers to gather for religious observances in a manner that is lower risk and consistent with public health directives.”
The idea that Los Angeles County has been working with Grace Community Church is a joke, unless your idea of “working” with the church is telling congregants what to do and expecting them to do it, no matter what the First Amendment might say.
That whole part that disallows “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion doesn’t exist — not now, anyway.
In a statement, MacArthur called the decision “inexplicable.”
“[The] judge said the ‘scale tipped in favor of the county.’ 1/100th of 1% of Californians with a virus apparently wins over the U.S. Constitution and religious freedom for all?” MacArthur asked.
“That is not what our founders said. Nor is that what God says, who gave us our rights that our government — including the judicial branch — is supposed to protect. The scale should always tip in favor of liberty, especially for churches.”
There isn’t just a constitutional issue here, but a practical one as well. Religious congregations act as a cultural bulwark in times of crisis — and this is the biggest existential crisis to face the United States since World War II.
Streaming church services and video chatting small group meetings aren’t necessarily going to fill the spiritual vacuum the virus has created in so many lives.
The founders understood the importance of social institutions. The reason religion is protected under the First Amendment isn’t just because it’s an individual right to worship but a congregational right.
If in-person services need to be suspended temporarily, the responsibility is on state and local jurisdictions to work with all due haste to get those services meeting again with as few restrictions as possible.
Instead, Los Angeles County, like so many other governmental bodies out there, has instead spent its resources actively fighting churches that want to meet. Meanwhile, as the Thomas More Society — who is representing Grace Community Church in the suit — pointed out, officials have given preferential treatment to Black Lives Matter protests.
“While the judge did go out of his way to repeatedly state that he is not ruling on the merits, only a ruling at this very preliminary stage, Pastor MacArthur is still harmed because he has every right to hold church,” Jenna Ellis, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, said in a statement.
“Church is essential, and no government agent has the runaway, unlimited power to force churches to close indefinitely.”
Los Angeles County isn’t the only jurisdiction that doesn’t believe the First Amendment is that applicable in times of crisis and John MacArthur isn’t the only pastor who’s been made a target by overzealous county officials — officials who will allow protesters to do whatever they want.
That being said, the battle is the most aggressive and the most visible fight for our religious freedoms in the time of the coronavirus. If MacArthur loses, the implications will be far-reaching and dangerous.
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