Judge delivers ‘historic’ pandemic win for California church rebranded as ‘peaceful protest’

by WorldTribune Staff, August 16, 2020

A California court on Friday denied Los Angeles County’s request for a temporary restraining order against Grace Community Church after the church began holding indoor services in defiance of state and county covid lockdown orders, according to a press release from the Thomas More Society.

Attorney Jenna Ellis called it a “historic win,” tweeting that the court was the first in California “to recognize #churchisessential.”

Pastor John MacArthur. / YouTube

Pastor John MacArthur opened his Aug. 9 service at the Sun Valley megachurch by saying: “Good morning, everyone. I’m so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.”

Washington Times reporter Valerie Richardson noted on Aug. 13 that MacArthur’s line “drew thunderous applause from the congregation, but not from Los Angeles County, which fired off a cease-and-desist order after the church began cautiously reopening in late July.”

After reopening slowly in late July, Grace Community Church drew 6,000 to 7,000 congregants on Aug. 9, according to local news reports.

In Los Angeles County, church attendance is limited to 100 people or 25 percent of building capacity.

“Violating these orders is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to 90 days,” said the July 29 cease-and-desist order. “Each day that you conduct indoor services is a separate offense. Pursuant to the State and County health orders, Grace Community Church must immediately cease holding indoor worship services.”

In the Friday ruling, Superior Court Judge James Chalfant allowed the church to hold indoor services with singing and without attendance limits pending a resolution of the case.

The Thomas More Society said the judge ruled “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, but also expressing safety concerns.”

At the same time, the church agreed to comply with mask-wearing and social-distancing rules before the full hearing scheduled for Sept. 4.

“This vindicates our desire to stay open and serve our people,” said MacArthur. “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.”

Ellis called it 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.”

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, three Christian churches filed lawsuits on Thursday against Gov. Tim Walz for requiring parishioners to wear face masks during services, to limit church capacity and to require 6-foot distancing, which they described as the “criminalization of religious worship,” Richardson reported.

“Governor Walz, a former teacher, gets a F in religious liberties,” Thomas More Society special counsel Erick Kaardal said in a statement. “Other states, including Texas, Illinois, and Ohio have excluded churches from COVID-19 mask mandates. Unlike Walz, those states have recognized that you cannot criminalize religious attendance at houses of worship for any reason.”

Kaardal added: “Governor Walz wants to prosecute Minnesotans for religious attendance. We are going to do our best not to see that happen.”

The Supreme Court has ruled twice against churches seeking exemptions from state lockdown rules, first in California and then in Nevada, citing the public health authority of state officials.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego County lost its lawsuit challenging California restrictions, arguing that the state’s rules for church reopenings were tougher than for some businesses.

“The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts ‘the safety and the health of the people’ to the politically accountable officials of the states ‘to guard and protect,’ ” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a May 29 ruling.

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