The state of California and Los Angeles have agreed to pay $800,000 in legal fees to settle their lawsuit with John MacArthur’s church over COVID-19 lockdown rules.
MacArthur’s Grace Community Church of Sun Valley had been involved in months of legal battles with state and local officials over his refusal to adhere to ongoing lockdown restrictions.
Jenna Ellis of the Thomas More Society, who helped to represent the church, posted a statement on Twitter Tuesday celebrating the $800,000 settlement.
“We are very pleased to see Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church’s First Amendment protections fully vindicated in this case,” read the statement.
“It has been a hard-fought battle to preserve religious liberty and we hope that this result will encourage Californians, and all Americans, to continue to stand firm that church is essential.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to the settlement (its amount being $400,000) due in part to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that overturned various public health measures in response to COVID-19 that specifically targeted houses of worship.
“After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some public health safety measures could not apply to houses of worship, resolving this litigation is the responsible and appropriate thing to do,” stated the county’s counsel, as quoted by the Los Angeles Daily News.
“From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Los Angeles County has been committed to protecting the health and safety of its residents. We are grateful to the county’s faith organizations for their continued partnership to keep their congregants and the entire community safe and protected from COVID-19.”
Last August, MacArthur and his church sued California over its ongoing ban on indoor worship services in response to the coronavirus.
Although Grace Community Church had initially adhered to the state lockdown rules, they returned to in-person worships in defiance of the state's ongoing public health orders.
“California has no such power to determine whether churches are ‘essential,’ as the federal and state constitutions have already done so,” argued the lawsuit, in part.
“Grace Community Church provides a spiritual service to the Los Angeles community that its congregation and its members rightly believe is essential, and the California State Constitution specifically protects their fundamental rights in this context.”
In an earlier interview with Billy Hallowell, MacArthur said:"I’ve been here 50 years; the church is 63 years old, and this church has never had any kind of mandate from the government to close. So when they came up with this mandate it seemed to be so rare and so unusual that we were listening."
Upon hearing dire predictions about the death toll, MacArthur said it was "enough to make anybody with common sense" pause and take steps to ensure no one was endangered. The church initially moved to a livestream model and closed down in-person services. But within a few weeks, MacArthur said parishioners started showing up again.
Even when faced with the threat of jail time as a result of his refusal to comply with coronavirus regulations, MacArthur maintained that it’s the church’s biblical responsibility to stay open and hold worship services.
Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of the ministry group 9Marks, wrote a column in July 2020 expressing concerns over MacArthur’s decision to defy the state's ongoing orders.
Leeman asserted that some churches could hold small outdoor gatherings under the restrictions and that, in the past decades, houses of worship had altered their worship patterns in light of national calamities due to government orders.
In April, regarding a separate lawsuit against California’s restrictions, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision ruling that the state's restrictions on churches were unlawful.
“[G]overnment regulations are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise,” stated the decision.
“It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief. California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny.”
In response to this and other Supreme Court decisions, California’s Department of Public Health changed the language on capacity limits for “places of worship” from “mandatory” to “strongly recommended.”
“In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended,” explained the state's website.
“The linked guidance is in the process of being updated. All other restrictions in the guidance remain in place.”