As California officials proceeded with efforts to reintroduce coronavirus-related public health restrictions across the state, the pastor of a Los Angeles megachurch scored a major victory Friday in his fight to keep his house of worship open.
According to Jenna Ellis, special counsel for the conservative law firm the Thomas More Society, a California judge has ruled that Grace Community Church in Los Angeles can remain open for communal worship under minimal restrictions until a full hearing can be granted in Pastor John MacArthur’s recent lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials.
Ellis called the ruling a “historic win” for MacArthur and the church.
“An HISTORIC WIN today for @johnmacarthur and @GraceComChurch!” Ellis wrote on Twitter. “Judge allows indoor services with singing and no attendance cap! Church agrees to adhere to mask and social distancing until full hearing.”
“FIRST CA Court to recognize #ChurchIsEssential!” she added.
?BREAKING w/ @PaulJonna:
An HISTORIC WIN today for @johnmacarthur and @GraceComChurch! Judge allows indoor services with singing and no attendance cap! Church agrees to adhere to mask and social distancing until full hearing.
FIRST CA Court to recognize #ChurchIsEssential!
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) August 14, 2020
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by Ellis and co-counsel Charles LiMandri, began two weeks after a demand letter came from Los Angeles County calling on Grace Community Church to “immediately cease holding indoor worship services” under threat of unspecified “criminal and civil liability.”
Named alongside Newsom in the suit were state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, plus a variety of health officials whom MacArthur alleged have treated Christians as “second-class citizens” in their unrelenting enforcement of “unconstitutional and onerous” COVID-19 regulations.
“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,” Ellis said in a Thursday statement received by The Western Journal.
“After Grace Community Church voluntarily complied with state orders for nearly six months, California’s edicts demanding an indefinite shutdown 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,” Ellis added.
Los Angeles County counter-sued on Thursday, charging that Grace violated the county health officer’s order, which in July prohibited indoor operations in places of worship and other sectors, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Western Journal reached out to the offices of Newsom and Garcetti for comment on Friday’s ruling but did not immediately receive responses.
MacArthur has grabbed national headlines in recent weeks, all but declaring war on what he refers to as the soft “tyranny” of government-ordered church closure.
In a July 29 radio appearance, MacArthur derided Christian submission to such state action, comparing it to the 20th-century societal complacence that allowed Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to install genocidal authoritarian dictatorships in their respective countries.
“It doesn’t start with massacring 6 million Jews. It doesn’t start with massacre, 13 million people between Russia and Germany and the killing fields in those years, the late ’30s and early ’40s,” MacArthur said. “It starts this way. It starts with intrusion into the life of the church and the violation of law by the governor.”
The pastor’s bold campaign began in mid-July, when Newsom flip-flopped on California’s social and economic reopening with an executive order that again shut down indoor dining locations, bars, zoos, museums, gyms and houses of worship after a statewide coronavirus case surge.
It had been just over two months since the state kicked off its modest reopening effort on May 8, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Grace Community Church was one of many parties to eventually join in open defiance.
In an open letter to the governor and the Christian community on July 24, MacArthur reminded Americans that “Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church,” laying out his case for denying recent government actions.
In Mark 12:17, MacArthur argued, Jesus might call on believers to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” — but to deny God out of respect for earthly authority would be to “render to Caesar” what belongs to God: the believer himself.
MacArthur and his legal team have emphasized the importance of this distinction all the more in the face of inconsistent lockdown enforcement by government officials, whom they argue have done far less to enforce the recent restrictions on secular organizations and frequently violent social justice protesters.
LiMandri highlighted this seemingly selective enforcement as a primary concern in the lawsuit.
“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,” the lawyer said in the statement received by The Western Journal. “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, and abortion providers.”
“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,” he added.
Despite the stakes and likely pressure associated with the unfinished legal battle, MacArthur has kept a firm yet cheery public face, viewing the challenging moment as uniquely missional.
John MacArthur: “Welcome to our ‘peaceful protest’ ”: pic.twitter.com/knjNkwZ5x6
— Phil Johnson (@Phil_Johnson_) August 9, 2020
He seemed to have a laugh at the expense of California authorities on Aug. 9 over their inconsistent lockdown enforcement, opening his Sunday sermon by saying, “Good morning everyone, I’m so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.”
“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,” MacArthur later said of the lawsuit in the statement to The Western Journal.
“We will remain open and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who decide they want to come worship with us.”
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