Los Angeles County has asked that Pastor John MacArthur and his Grace Community Church be held in contempt of court for violating a court order not to hold indoor worship services on Sunday, Aug. 16. A hearing is set on this question for Monday, Aug. 24.
This is the latest salvo in a high-profile battle between the Southern California megachurch and the city, state and county — all of whom seek to enforce a public health order prohibiting mass gatherings due to the potential spread of coronavirus.
Although the original public health order carries the possibility of MacArthur and other church leaders being arrested or fined for violating it, that is not the tack the county has chosen at this moment. Instead, the county appears to be pursuing a second line of prosecution against the church by documenting the church’s violation not only of the public health order but also of the subsequent court order.
On Thursday, Aug. 20, both sides lobbed volleys back and forth about the meaning of a brief court ruling about how to move forward. The church touted a purported victory about the non-existence of any court order prohibiting their assembly, while the county touted an affirmation of its right to issue a health order. The church’s claim, which was published widely by its law firm, could not be independently verified by public court records.
In sum, though, the county has asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting the church from holding indoor services. If the court issues the order, any future indoor services could be grounds for a contempt citation and fines of up to $20,000.
The church wants to call its own witnesses to dispute the scientific evidence used by state, county and city officials to justify the ban on mass gatherings.
The church, meanwhile, wants to call its own witnesses to dispute the scientific evidence used by state, county and city officials to justify the ban on mass gatherings.
“Whether it is appropriate for California and Los Angeles to maintain a ‘state of emergency’ when the science shows that the pandemic is essentially over, and most other jurisdictions have lessened their restrictions, is a question this court can decide,” the church said its latest court filing. “But perhaps more importantly, whether California’s and Los Angeles’s health orders violate the U.S. and California constitutions requires a close look at their merits.”
In asking for the contempt of court ruling, the county appeared to be pressing MacArthur and the church with a second kind of violation. Even if the government’s restrictions on public health were to be ruled invalid at some point, the church still could face prosecution for violating a separate court order, under this reasoning.
This is similar to the situation faced by Texas hairstylist Shelley Luther, who became a darling of the hyper-conservative political establishment by defying the order of the conservative Republican governor of Texas to close all hair salons because of the coronavirus threat. Luther ultimately was arrested and spent a brief time in jail not for violating the public health order but for acting in contempt of a court order subsequent to the public health order.
On Thursday morning, Aug. 20, the county filed an ex parte application with the Superior Court of the State of California demanding that the church and MacArthur show cause why they should not be held in contempt of court. The church then filed a response asking for an expedited hearing, which was denied.
“This application is made on the grounds that defendants willfully violated this court’s … temporary restraining order issued on August 15 … by (1) holding three indoor services on Sunday, August 16, 2020, and (2) denying county health officials access to the property in order to observe and verify compliance” with the temporary restraining order, the filing said. “Defendants have indicated that, despite the court orders, they intend to continue conducting indoor services and refusing entry to county health officials.”
The county’s complaint details the concern: “Defendants first deliberately disobeyed state and county public health orders. Now, they are willfully violating two court orders. The purpose of these public health orders — and the court orders upholding their validity — is to combat community transmission of COVID-19 by avoiding ‘superspreader’ events of the sort defendants are conducting — where thousands of people sit shoulder-to-shoulder, singing and not wearing masks in an indoor setting. In doing so, defendants are placing themselves and the community at large in grave risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, a highly contagious disease for which there is no vaccine or treatment, and slowing the county’s progress in the fight against this pandemic.”
Jenna Ellis, special counsel for Thomas More Society, responded on behalf of the church: “The LA County Board of Supervisors has decided to continue their unconstitutional attack against Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. They are now asking the court to hold the church in contempt for simply being open for worship last Sunday. Pastor MacArthur is standing firm that church is essential and has no plans to yield to this tyrannical board, which is clearly defying the constitution’s mandate to protect religious liberty.”
That the church defied the court order by holding three indoor services last Sunday was well-known because the church livestreams its services. The new information revealed in the latest court filing, however, is that church officials denied entry to county public health monitors who sought to “observe and verify compliance” with the court order.
In his introductory comments to the church last Sunday — for which he received loud applause — MacArthur said the church had tried to negotiate with city and county officials but failed. He cited this as further evidence that the church has been singled out for persecution by government officials. MacArthur’s position is that public in-person worship services are “essential” and cannot be denied by government officials for any reason.
The county, in its latest court filing, portrays a different scenario on lack of cooperation from the church and its leaders. According to the county, MacArthur had earlier indicated willingness to pause indoor gatherings but maintain outdoor gatherings as the court allowed. From the brief: “MacArthur stated that ‘we are happy for a few weeks to comply and respect what the judge has asked of us because he is allowing us to meet.’” County officials also said the church had agreed to allow public health officials to monitor what they were doing.
Instead, the church immediately backtracked by holding indoor services the next day and denying entry to public health monitors, the complaint states.
The California case continues to draw national attention because it represents the national debate over the meaning of religious liberty in a time of global pandemic.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Friday morning, Aug. 21, to include the latest available court documents.