Dark clouds may be clearing on the horizon for one California pastor as opposing legal teams gear up for litigation in the fight to keep his Los Angeles megachurch open for worship.
Attorney Jenna Ellis told The Western Journal on Monday that weekend case developments revealed potential judicial sympathy, and governmental malice, toward Grace Community Church pastor John MacArthur in his lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials for what he considers to be unconstitutional church closure orders.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant tentatively ruled in favor of MacArthur on Friday, affirming the evangelist’s constitutional right to continue hosting in-person religious services under minimal public health restrictions until a full hearing could be granted in the case.
The judge’s ruling, publicized on social media by a lawyer adjacent the case, stated that churches were “entitled to special consideration under the First Amendment” that could only be overridden by government officials who proved not only that continued operation posed health risks, but that proposed restrictions to religious liberty were “necessary under a strict scrutiny test.”
IMPORTANT THREAD: ⬇️⬇️⬇️
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) August 17, 2020
Ellis, who is currently representing MacArthur as special counsel to the conservative law firm the Thomas More Society, it was a “historic win” — one that boded well for churches nationwide seeking judicial support for re-opening in the face of government restrictions.
“All of the indicators as far as the science are on the side of, ‘This is not an emergency and it doesn’t justify the restrictions,'” Ellis, a senior legal adviser to President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, told The Western Journal.
“As time continues, I hope that all of the judges will understand that and realize that this is not an emergency anymore. It’s just a matter of the county wanting to assume that they have power and control over churches.
“I think that this transcript and this judge finally being willing, in California, to say, ‘Yes, there should be heightened protections. The Constitution mandates that.’ That’s something that, hopefully, there will be a trend and we’re at a tipping point where other judges will follow.”
🚨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 victory celebration was short-lived, however, as Los Angeles County went back to the well Saturday with an appeal, requesting affirmation of its right to enforce local health orders until a final ruling was made by the Superior Court with regard to MacArthur’s case.
An en banc ruling from three judges at the California Court of Appeals agreed with the county, Ellis said, but failed to reinstate previous direct orders for Grace Community Church to remain closed, thus allowing the house of worship to remain open once again this past weekend for regularly scheduled Sunday services.
The church met as a result.
Filed Aug. 12 by Ellis and Thomas More Society co-counsel Charles LiMandri, MacArthur’s lawsuit comes exactly two weeks after the evangelist received a letter from Los Angeles County demanding he “immediately cease holding indoor worship services” under threat of unspecified “criminal and civil liability.”
Named alongside Newsom in the lawsuit are state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a variety of health officials.
Within 24 hours of the initial filing, MacArthur’s suit was met with a countersuit for alleged violation of state and local public health orders, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Such legal aggression toward churches nationwide by their local and state governments has raised eyebrows among religious freedom experts throughout the ongoing pandemic.
Ellis, no exception to this rule, told The Western Journal that inconsistent enforcement of coronavirus restrictions on left-wing gatherings was a major indicator that recent lockdown orders were being weaponized against religious liberty.
Cited as a primary example was the lackadaisical government response to protests and riots that swept the nation after the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
“They’re treating those types of political events very differently than viewpoints and speech, like churches, that they don’t care about,” Ellis said in the interview. “I think that the evidence very clearly shows the intention of the county, and how they’re treating churches not just arbitrarily, capriciously, but with actual targeted discrimination.”
“They’re not willing to be reasonable in any way, they just want to shut churches down,” she added.
The Western Journal reached out to the offices of Newsom and Garcetti for comment but did not immediately receive responses.
🚨NEW: After win for @GraceComChurch, LA County rushed to file an appeal, making several false claims:
❌Claims this allows ALL churches to open indoors
❌Claims without evidence thousands WILL BE exposed to Covid-19.
This is a scare tactic to push Court into quick stay order. pic.twitter.com/q7pZHpEGlR
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) August 15, 2020
And look at their ridiculous press release. They are so excited to SHUT DOWN church!!! This is NOT about health!!
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) August 16, 2020
MacArthur has garnered no shortage of media attention for his leadership in the battle against what he refers to as the soft “tyranny” of government-ordered church closure.
— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) August 14, 2020
Laying out his case for defying such orders in a July 24 letter to both the governor and the Christian community, MacArthur reminded Americans that “Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church.”
In Mark 12:17, he argued, Jesus may 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.
The evangelist would go on to deride uncritical Christian submission to authority in a July 29 radio appearance, comparing it to the 20th-century societal complacence that allowed Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to institute dictatorships abroad.
“It doesn’t start with massacring 6 million Jews. It doesn’t start with the massacre of 13 million people between Russia and Germany in 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.”
Ellis told The Western Journal she is of a similar opinion, suggesting Monday that it is best to get out ahead of potential government power-grabs before it is too late.
“You wouldn’t call a firefighter just when the entire integrity of your structure is on fire, you call them when the fire is first beginning so that you can put it out and the integrity of your whole structure is still intact,” Ellis said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, is put out this fire so that the integrity of our Constitution and of our structure of government remains intact.”
A full hearing of MacArthur’s case before the Los Angeles County Superior Court is slated for Sept. 4, though the date is subject to change. A presiding judge has yet to be announced.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.