In late July 2020, the Revd John MacArthur resumed weekly services at his Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.

The church is located in Los Angeles County.

At first, few people came, because California is still under lockdown.

As the weeks passed, more and more people began attending Sunday services.

A full hearing about the church’s indoor services will take place on September 4.

At the moment, Los Angeles County could fine the church and have prison sentences imposed. The Washington Times reports:

The county issued a cease-and-desist order July 29 warning that the church would be subject to fines up to $1,000 and 90 days in prison for each indoor service.

In Los Angeles County, all religious services must be held outdoors, with masks and social distancing:

Under the county order, churches may conduct outdoor religious services, and participants “must wear cloth face coverings and maintain six feet of distance from each other unless they live in the same household.”

Grace Community Church objects to the lax attitude of Governor Gavin Newsom towards the summer protests, a stark contrast to his stance on indoor church services:

The Supreme Court has ruled twice in favor of state authority to issue emergency orders in lawsuits by churches challenging coronavirus health restrictions, but the Grace lawsuit argued that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had discriminated against churches with his lax enforcement of public-health mandates on protests.

With regard to the congregation not wearing masks at the service on Sunday, August 16, MacArthur offered this explanation:

“They were going to be asking us to do two things, social distance and wear masks,” said Mr. MacArthur. “We agreed, [saying] 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.”

The California Court of Appeal issued a stay of the judge’s order, ruling that the dangers of COVID-19 outweigh the right to hold services at the popular church, where Sunday attendance has in pre-pandemic years topped 8,000.

Grace Community Church has hired a lawyer from the Thomas More Society, which handles religious freedom lawsuits.

Jenna Ellis is representing Grace. She is also a Senior Legal Adviser to President Trump’s campaign team and one of his personal lawyers.

Charles LiMandri is also representing the church.

PJ Media has more on both lawyers:

MacArthur and his church have hired Jenna Ellis and Charles LiMandri. Ellis is the senior legal adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign, private counsel to President Donald Trump, and served on his legal team for the impeachment trial. She also serves as a senior fellow at the Falkirk Center for Faith & Liberty and is the author of The Legal Basis for a Moral Constitution. LiMandri began the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund in 2012 and has litigated high-profile cases in California for decades, including the ACLU’s effort to remove the Mount Soledad Cross and San Diego’s effort to force firefighters to participate in a gay pride parade against their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Breitbart quoted the judge who found in favour of the church on Friday (the stay came on Saturday):

On Friday, Judge James Chalfant of the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles, upheld the right of MacArthur and the church to remain open and hold indoor worship.

Attorney Paul Jonna of the firm LiMandri & Jonna LLP, which litigates civil rights issues, tweeted some quotes from Chalfant’s ruling against Los Angeles County, which apparently argued that churches are being treated no differently than other “businesses.”

“The Governor can’t just issue policies without a rational basis to do so,” the judge said. “To my knowledge he never has developed a rational basis to distinguish between businesses. This is all sort of shooting from the hip, which is understandable at the beginning of an emergency and less understandable as time goes on.”

Chalfant continued that “although the moving paper purports to treat churches the same as other businesses, that is constitutionally wrong.”

“They’re entitled to heightened protection, not to be treated like a hair salon,” he said, adding that he agreed that Newsom and Los Angeles County “have not treated churches differently than any other business, and they have to. They absolutely have to.”

The PJ Media article summarises how Grace Community Church got in the crosshairs of the state and the county:

After Newsom ordered churches to shut on July 13, Grace Community Church released a statement on July 24 explaining that Grace Community Church would remain open. “Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16). Grace Community Church has always stood immovably on those biblical principles,” the church said. “Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gathers. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”

On July 29, the City of Los Angeles sent a cease-and-desist letter, threatening Grace Community Church and MacArthur with a daily fine of $1,000 or arrest. The letter gave him one day to respond. On Sunday, August 2, health officials came to the church, asking to inspect the premises. The church declined to let them in without a warrant and told them to speak with the church’s counsel. At that, they left.

The statement is on the church’s website. I will go into it in more detail tomorrow.

For now, here is the addendum, added on August 6. It gives the history of this year’s lockdown and the church’s initial compliance (emphases mine below):

The elders of Grace Church considered and independently consented to the original government order, not because we believed the state has a right to tell churches when, whether, or how to worship. To be clear, we believe that the original orders were just as much an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters as we believe it is now. However, because we could not possibly have known the true severity of the virus, and because we care about people as our Lord did, we believe guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government. Therefore, we voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government. It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.

When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to “flatten the curve”—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.

But we did not yield our spiritual authority to the secular government. We said from the very start that our voluntary compliance was subject to change if the restrictions dragged on beyond the stated goal, or politicians unduly intruded into church affairs, or if health officials added restrictions that would attempt to undermine the church’s mission. We made every decision with our own burden of responsibility in mind. We simply took the early opportunity to support the concerns of health officials and accommodate the same concerns among our church members, out of a desire to act in an abundance of care and reasonableness (Philippians 4:5).

But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared. Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors’ ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary. Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the church’s statement and how it complies with Romans 13:1-7.