Judge refuses to hold John MacArthur, Grace Community Church in contempt without trial

Pastor John MacArthur preaches at Grace Community Church in California, 2019.
Pastor John MacArthur preaches at Grace Community Church in California, 2019. | Facebook/Grace Community Church

A California judge has sided with California Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in yet another hearing over the church’s decision to hold indoor public worship services amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Thursday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled that MacArthur and his Sun Valley-based church are entitled to a full trial on the merits of their challenge against state and local orders prohibiting indoor church gatherings before they can be held in contempt for violating the orders. 

For nearly three months, the county has sought to shut down the church and hold MacArthur in contempt for repeatedly violating the order.  However, attorneys at the Thomas More Society have argued that the governor’s orders violate several provisions of the state constitution.

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This week, Beckloff ruled that the courts must first decide on the constitutionality of the shutdown orders before the county can pursue contempt charges.

Due to the state’s shut-down orders, the contempt trial is not expected to take place until early 2021. 

The court scheduled a hearing to be held on Nov. 13 regarding the scope of the church’s challenge. A preliminary injunction was issued earlier this month by Beckloff prohibiting the church from conducting, participating in or attending any indoor worship services until the case is resolved. 

Lawyers for MacArthur and Grace Community applauded the judge's decision Thursday. 

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Charles LiMandri explained in a statement that the ruling prevents the county’s “attempted rush to judgment in its continued prosecution” of MacArthur and Grace Community Church, who are “exercising their First Amendment rights.”

“We are pleased that Judge Beckloff indicated he agreed with the major points that we made on behalf of Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church and we are very gratified that the judge’s ruling today reflects that he appreciates the importance of the constitutionally protected rights at issue in this case," LiMandri said. 

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Jenna Ellis called the ruling “significant,” saying that “no person can or should be held in contempt of a constitutionally invalid order.”

“Los Angeles County continues to presume that its order is valid, with utter disregard for First Amendment protections,” she said. 

“It’s tyranny to even suggest that a government action cannot be challenged and must be obeyed without question. This case goes to the heart of what our founders designed for the purpose of legitimate government — not to be above the rule of law. Pastor MacArthur is simply holding church, which is clearly his constitutionally protected right in this country.”

In a statement, MacArthur, who is also an internationally syndicated radio host and former president of The Master’s University, pledged Grace Community Church would continue to meet despite continued opposition.

“We are holding church,” he said in a statement shared by Thomas More Society. “The Lord Jesus requires us to meet together and we will continue to do that because we are commanded to and because it is our right.”

The pastor said that the church is “very grateful” to Beckloff for “providing full due process and recognizing the importance of these constitutional protections.”

“The reality is that the county cannot show that their order is even rational, much less necessary,” he stressed. “They have also applied their orders arbitrarily and discriminatorily against churches and we enjoy a heightened protection in America to hold church. I’ll continue to stand firm and we will continue to fight to protect religious freedom for the church.”

Listen to MacArthur explain why his church is defying orders:

In addition to seeking a court order to close Grace Community, Los Angeles County officials have used various methods to prevent the congregation from gathering. 

Last month, the county told the church it would terminate a lease for a parking lot the congregation had used for 45 years. 

Last week, MacArthur revealed that he recently received a letter threatening up to six months in jail if he continues holding indoor worship services.

“Of course, my biblical hero apart from the Lord Jesus Christ is the Apostle Paul,” MacArthur said in an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham. “And when he went into a town he didn't ask what the hotel was like. He asked what the jail was like because he knew that's where he was going to spend his time.”

“So I don't mind being a little apostolic — if they want to tuck me into jail, I'm open for a jail ministry,” he continued. “I've done a lot of other ministries and haven't had the opportunity to do that one. So bring it on.”

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