Holding indoor services once again in defiance of California’s COVID-19 lockdown orders, Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church on Sunday told his congregation, “We are holding church … because our Lord commands it.” The megachurch met hours after an appeals court blocked a ruling that had allowed it to meet for worship.
“They don’t want us to meet, that’s obvious,” MacArthur said after Los Angeles County secured a stay of the trial court ruling that would have allowed the congregation to meet indoors with masks and social distancing.
“They’re not willing to work with us. They just want to shut us down. But we’re here to bring honor to the Lord,” the pastor continued.
The California Court of Appeal said in its ruling late Saturday, “As between the harm that flows from the heightened risk of transmitting COVID-19 (namely “serious illness and death”) and the harm that flows from having to conduct religious services outdoors instead of indoors, the balance at this early stage favors issuance of a stay.”
MacArthur said he doesn’t know “exactly what the city is trying to do with us and to us,” and clarified that the indoor service was not aimed at being “rebellious.” “We’re meeting because our Lord has commanded us to come together and worship Him.”
The Sun Valley church has been holding in-person worship services despite Gov. Gavin Newsom's recent lockdown orders prohibiting indoor church gatherings. Grace Community filed a lawsuit last week against state restrictions, accusing government officials of selectively restricting gatherings amid the pandemic.
“When many went to the streets to engage in ‘political’ or ‘peaceful’ protests purportedly against racism and police brutality, these protesters refused to comply with the pandemic restrictions. Instead of enforcing the public health orders, public officials were all too eager to grant a de facto exception for these favored protestors,” the lawsuit says.
On Friday, Judge James Chalfant of Los Angeles Superior Court agreed with MacArthur and his church that it is the county’s burden to show why they should be permitted to infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of churches to freely exercise religion. The appeals court, however, issued an emergency order on Saturday in favor of LA County.
The church’s attorneys had argued that the county’s demands to comply with COVID-19 restrictions were unreasonable. The church offered to have the congregation comply with mask-wearing and social distancing indoors until the matter could be fully heard.
“This was stipulated as a more reasonable action than that of the county’s rush to shut down church services. The judge agreed and set the full hearing for Sept. 4, ordering the church to have congregants wear masks and social distance between family groups indoors,” according to the statement shared with The Christian Post.
MacArthur told the attendees Sunday, “We agreed … look, we’ll comply for a few weeks. They asked that for three weeks. We’re not wanting to be defiant. We will do what is reasonable. That was not enough for the city. They went to the appellate court Saturday late, and had that order removed.”
Attorney Jenna Ellis, who is also a Trump campaign adviser and lawyer, tweeted Sunday that the megachurch “is doing exactly what they have for 63 years—holding church.”
“They have tried to be reasonable and work with LA County, but the County would not accept anything short of shutting down the Church entirely," she added.
After the appeals court issued a stay order Saturday, the county said in a statement that outdoor religious observances were permitted. However, the temperature forecast for Sunday was 94, making it difficult for churches to hold outdoor services.
“We will continue to work closely with all religious institutions, including Grace Community Church, to make sure their congregants are protected and provided with accurate information about worshiping safely during this phase of the pandemic,” the county said.
There are two more Sundays until the Los Angeles Superior Court holds a hearing on Sept. 4.
“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,” MacArthur said in a recent interview on the “Edifi With Billy Hallowell” podcast. “So when they came up with this mandate it seemed to be so rare and so unusual that we were listening.”
MacArthur told Hallowell that upon hearing dire predictions about the death toll, it was “enough to make anybody with common sense” pause and take steps to ensure no one was endangered.
While the church initially moved to a livestream model and closed down in-person services, within a few weeks, MacArthur said parishioners started showing up again. Grace Community decided to restart in-person worship services, with church leaders saying that the government did not have the authority to stop them from gathering.
In response, officials from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health threatened MacArthur with “repercussions such as fines and even possible arrest” if his church didn’t comply with state orders.