A personal lawyer to President Donald Trump has been retained by high-profile pastor John MacArthur and his Grace Community Church in a COVID-19 fight with California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the City of Los Angeles.
Grace Community Church has defied government health mandates that prohibit large gatherings to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus and now faces $1,000-per-day fines by the City of Los Angeles and possible arrest of MacArthur, according to an Aug. 5 news release by the church and its legal team.
On May 29, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that churches could not be exempted from the statewide mandate against mass gatherings that includes churches and other performance or event venues.
Soon thereafter, on July 24, the Grace Church elder board issued a declaration that the Southern California megachurch would defy the government order and meet for worship anyway. “We cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings,” the elders said. “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
Photos of public worship at Grace Church since that date have shown congregants without face masks and without social distancing. These actions apparently prompted the cease-and-desist letter from the city, although details of that letter could not be immediately verified apart from the church’s own report.
“The State of California is using COVID-19 as a pretext to attempt to force churches to close indefinitely.”
The church has retained legal counsel through the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit public law firm that describes itself as “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty.”
Two attorneys assigned to the case are Jenna Ellis and Charles LiMandri. Ellis serves as senior fellow at the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty and senior legal adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign. She also serves as private counsel to President Donald Trump and served on his legal team for the impeachment trial. LiMandri serves as special counsel for the Thomas More Society and has litigated high-profile cases in California, including an effort to remove the Mount Soledad Cross and San Diego firefighters objections to required participation in a gay pride parade.
“It is unconstitutional for Gov. 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,” LiMandri said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in its late May ruling, said exactly opposite this, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority: “Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. … Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”
Nevertheless, MacArthur and Grace Church contend they and evangelical Christians like them have been singled out for persecution by the city and state.
“The State of California is using COVID-19 as a pretext to attempt to force churches to close indefinitely,” LiMandri said, adding that the pastor and church have “an impeccable 63-year history” of “good citizenship and deference to legitimate state authority.”
For his part, MacArthur portrayed himself as a defender of ultimate truth.
“This is not the first time we as Christ’s church have stood for Truth,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to stand firm for the Truth today like we have every prior day in our 63-year history and as the biblical New Testament Church has done for more than 2,000 years.”
Further, the influential pastor said, “I earnestly hope that our stance will encourage other pastors, churches and the general public across America and the world to also stand firm for biblical Truth. Church is essential.”
Last Saturday, Aug. 1, evangelist Franklin Graham took to Twitter to defend MacArthur and encourage Southern California residents to visit Grace Church the next day: “I urge you to get up tomorrow morning and go! It will be worth the drive. Not only will you hear a great message from the Bible, but this would be taking an important stand for our religious freedom.”
A tug-of-war between two clauses of the First Amendment has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A tug-of-war between two clauses of the First Amendment has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, although the core debate is nothing new. Historically, courts have sought to balance between the Establishment Clause (government shall not favor or establish one religion over a single religion or no religion) and the Free Exercise Clause (government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion).
Conservative Christians, and especially conservative evangelicals, often emphasize the Free Exercise Clause to the exclusion of the Establishment Clause, which has been the source of much litigation over the past 40 years. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a new twist on this legal imbroglio by adding public health to the equation.
In its news release, the Thomas More Society echoed White House reasoning that downplays the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not about health and safety; it is about targeting churches,” attorney Ellis said.
Attorney LaMandri said the government orders prohibiting mass gatherings are “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 Gov. 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.”
On the day the attorneys spoke in defense of MacArthur and Grace Church, California reported 528,181 confirmed cases of coronavirus, an increase of 1,199 in one day, following an increase of 6,275 cases the day before. Likewise, coronavirus deaths in California continued to increase, with 9,729 reported to date and the number increasing daily.