UPDATE Aug. 16 at 9:35 AM EDT: Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church still plan to hold indoor church services after the California Court of Appeal struck down a lower court ruling late Saturday that would have allowed the congregation to gather indoors without a limit on the number of attendees as long as churchgoers wore masks and adhered to social distancing requirements.
Pastor John MacArthur, whose Grace Community Church had been holding in-person services in violation of the state’s COVID-19 lockdown orders, is celebrating a California court’s vindication of their right to hold indoor worship with no cap on attendance or a ban on singing.
While Los Angeles County was seeking a restraining order to stop the pastor from holding any in-person services, Judge James Chalfant of Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday 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 Thomas More Society said in a statement.
Attorney Jenna Ellis, who is also a Trump campaign adviser and lawyer, called the ruling a “historic win.”
“FIRST CA Court to recognize #ChurchIsEssential!” Ellis tweeted.
The church’s attorneys argued that the county’s demands to comply with COVID-19 restrictions were unreasonable. The church offered to have the congregation comply with face 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.
“I am very grateful the court has allowed us to meet inside and 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,” the pastor of Sun Valley-based megachurch said. “This vindicates our desire to stay open and serve our people. This also gives us an opportunity to show that we are not trying to be rebellious or unreasonable, but that we will stand firm to protect our church against unreasonable, unconstitutional restrictions.”
Ellis said she spoke with the pastor after the hearing. “He said his congregation will be happy to comply with the judge’s temporary order. This is why John MacArthur is so deeply loved and respected by his congregation and all over the world. He is a gracious and firm leader, and his biblical stand for church being essential has now been rightly validated.”
The Grace Community Church is “standing on the side of the law against these overreaching tyrants that are defying their oaths of office when they are commanded, mandated by the Constitution to preserve and protect our right to free exercise of religion,” Ellis said earlier.
The church filed a lawsuit against California on Wednesday, and the county sought to get a restraining order on Thursday.
“When many went to the streets to engage in ‘political’ or ‘peaceful’ protests purportedly against racism and police brutality, these protestors 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 suit stated in part.
“California targeted the wrong groups. California first lifted restrictions on gatherings that occurred outdoors — blessing after-the-fact the illegal conduct of the ‘George Floyd’ protestors. California then banned singing in worship services and then shut them all down — unless they could modify their services to operate identically to the now-legal protests.”
“We will obey God rather than men,” MacArthur had said in a recent video statement. “We’re going to be faithful to the Lord and we’re going to leave the results to Him. Whatever happens is going to be what He allows to happen. But He will be on our side because we will be obedient and faithful to His word.”
He added, “We will not bow to Caesar. The Lord Jesus Christ is our king.”
Grace Community Church initially complied with California's restrictions before changing course in recent weeks.
"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 live stream 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 reportedly threatened MacArthur with “repercussions such as fines and even possible arrest” if his church doesn’t comply with state orders.