In a case that combines the global pandemic with the grievances of religious conservatives that they face persecution, a California Superior Court judge on Sept. 10 issued a temporary restraining order against Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in Los Angeles holding indoor worship.
MacArthur, a high-profile Calvinist pastor and author, has come to symbolize Christian conservatives’ belief that the COVID-19 threat is not real and that government officials are using the pandemic to singularly attack Christian churches. MacArthur has told his congregation “there is no pandemic” and has held large, indoor public worship services for weeks in defiance of state and county health mandates.
Taking apart the argument
Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff didn’t outright call MacArthur and his legal defense team liars, but in an 18-page opinion he took apart their claims of singular persecution and used the writings of conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices to do so.
“While the court is mindful that there is no substitute for indoor worship in the ‘spiritual refuge’ of a sanctuary, the court cannot ignore the county health order does not dictate a ban on worship,” the judge wrote.
MacArthur and church leaders have claimed churches were targeted for closure by the county health order, while the county has argued that churches have not, in fact, been ordered to close and have not been singled out. Church leaders point to events and businesses they oppose — Black Lives Matter protests and cannabis dispensaries — as receiving more favorable treatment than churches.
The county has countered that indoor mass gatherings like church services are different than outdoor events where people are wearing masks and socially distancing and are different than retail stores where customers come and go in small numbers. Churches and other performance venues, the county has said, present a significant risk of creating “super-spreader” events of coronavirus.
Judge Beckloff — who three times earlier delayed taking immediate action against the church — said the text of the county health order “does not discriminate on its face. It does not specifically target religious practice. That is, the county health order limits religious worship only because it applies to all ‘events and gatherings’ — regardless of their purpose — unless such ‘events and gatherings’ are otherwise permitted by the order. Thus, the county health order is facially neutral. In fact, religious services are ‘specifically allowed’ by the order.”
Charles LiMandri, one of the attorneys representing the church, charged that Beckloff “did not properly consider the medical and scientific evidence that the current number of people with serious COVID-19 symptoms no longer justifies a shuttering of the churches. Nor do we believe that the court gave adequate consideration to the fact that churches have been treated as second-class citizens compared to the tens of thousands of protestors.”
Beckloff, meanwhile, countered the church’s assertion of a different standard of science and medicine than that used by the county public health department. “No matter how statisticians might spin the numbers, on their most basic level, the facts are undisputable and easy to understand,” he wrote.
The judge repeated multiple times in his ruling that MacArthur and church leaders have not been singled out for persecution.
“The county health order does not restrict conduct specifically related to religious worship. Instead, it applies generally to all activities where people congregate indoors, often for long periods of time. … Nothing in evidence suggests the county has enforced its county health order in a manner specifically geared toward regulating religious conduct. There is no evidence the county has acted selectively in using its county health order to burden religious worship.”
First Amendment claims
Attorney Jenna Ellis, a personal lawyer to President Donald Trump and part of MacArthur’s defense team, persisted after the ruling in her claim that the church is being harmed by the ban on indoor worship.
“Church is essential, and no government agent has the runaway, unlimited power to force churches to close indefinitely,” she said. “The county’s argument was basically ‘because we can,’ which is the very definition of tyranny. Without limiting government’s power in favor of freedom and protected rights, we have no liberty. We will fight for religious freedom, as our founders did when they wrote the First Amendment.”
Beckloff specifically addressed the First Amendment claims in his ruling and said the church has no claim against the county for prohibiting the free exercise of religion because church gatherings are, in fact, allowed and because churches are not being treated differently than similar organizations.
He specifically addressed the church’s claims that the county public health ruling violates the Free Exercise Clause of the California Constitution.
“The California Free Exercise Clause itself speaks of public safety,” the judge wrote. “The state Constitution provides that free exercise ‘does not excuse acts that are … inconsistent with the … safety of the State.’ … There can be no question COVID-19 represents a serious threat to public health and safety. Under the express language of the Free Exercise Clause, some limits on free exercise are permissible given these circumstances.”
What the restraining order says
The restraining order prohibits the church from “conducting, participating in, or attending any indoor worship services” at any place within Los Angeles County “in violation of all applicable state and local health orders.”
Further, the church is specifically forbidden from “participating in, or attending any outdoor worship services at the church or any other place within Los Angeles County unless, at all times during the services, they (a) fully comply with the state and county orders, (b) comply with the mandates of the state and county orders to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing, and (c) do not permit or allow any violations of the state and county orders.”
Beckloff also required that the church allow public health officials to “enter onto the church premises to verify compliance with the state and county orders.”
MacArthur and church leaders not only have defied government orders against public gatherings for weeks now but have denied public health officials access to the church property to document what was going on there.
MacArthur and church leaders not only have defied government orders against public gatherings for weeks now but have denied public health officials access to the church property to document what was going on there. While the massive indoor worship services have been livestreamed, the camera angles in recent weeks have been limited to the pulpit and chancel areas and have not shown images of the congregation. Photos and videos taken by people in the room, however, have shown few face masks and little social distancing.
The order against outdoor services without social distancing and masks is significant because earlier the county and state had offered outdoor gatherings as a possible alternative to indoor worship services for the megachurch. While the church has held some overflow events outdoors, it rejected the plea to meet only outdoors and allowed thousands of people into a tightly packed sanctuary. MacArthur also publicly commended the congregation for not using masks or social distancing.
A news release from the Thomas More Society, which is providing legal counsel to the church, called the county’s requirement for social distancing and facemasks at outdoor gatherings “onerous restrictions.”
The county’s response
County officials released a brief statement regarding the ruling, expressing gratitude for the preliminary injunction.
“Religious services are central to many of our residents’ lives, especially in these trying times, and services have been allowed to be held online and outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings, and they may continue to do so,” the statement said. “The issue is a reminder that we must all work together and modify our activities to contain and slow this virus, which has caused the death of more than 6,000 Los Angeles County residents and has made thousands of others gravely ill.”
County officials said they went to court against MacArthur and the church “only after significant efforts to work with the leaders” of the church had failed. “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.”
Judge Beckloff declared in the court order that there is an immediate threat to public health and safety due to the COVID-19 and that he believes the county is likely to prevail in future litigation about the church’s noncompliance with the public health mandate.
The heart of the original issue is an existing county health mandate against large indoor public gatherings — bolstered by state mandates issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The county order comes with possible fines and other punishments for violators. To date, the county has not imposed those fines or punishments on MacArthur or other church leaders but instead has sought a separate court order requiring adherence.
If MacArthur and church leaders persist in holding indoor public worship services now, in further defiance of a court order, they could be arrested or fined.
LiMandri, one of the church’s attorneys, said the church will appeal Beckloff’s ruling. “More than ever, California’s churches are essential,” he said. “Therefore, we plan to appeal this ruling to ultimately vindicate our clients’ constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.”
In online discussions Thursday evening, speculation immediately turned to the possibility of this case making its way to the U.S Supreme Court. Beckloff himself may have anticipated that by quoting recent Supreme Court rulings in rendering his own judgment.
On the docket of the California Superior Court where Beckloff presides, the next scheduled event for this case is Oct. 22.