Judge: California church not barred from holding indoor services

Out in the San Fernando Valley region of California, the Grace Community Church and Pastor John MacArthur have found themselves in a spot of trouble of late. Pastor MacArthur, seeing other essential businesses and operations reopening after the pandemic shutdowns, disagreed with the state’s refusal to allow churches to have indoor services. After several rounds of failed discussions and appeals to elected officials, the Pastor went ahead and resumed services, albeit with limited attendance, sterilization procedures and social distancing rules being enforced. Los Angeles County moved to shut him down and the parties involved wound up going to court. On Thursday of last week, the judge finally issued a ruling. There was no court order prohibiting the church from holding services. Let the congregation say Hallelujah! (CBS Los Angeles)

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled that there is no court order in place that prohibits a San Fernando Valley megachurch from holding indoor worship services, attorneys said Thursday.

Jenna Ellis, an attorney for the Thomas More Society, which is representing pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, said Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff “correctly found there is no court order prohibiting Grace Community Church from holding indoor services.”

“We are pleased with the outcome today,” said Ellis, who said the county “continues to harass and target Pastor MacArthur. Having failed to get a court order to shut down the church they have sought three times, they’re going to try again by hauling us back into court.”

Perhaps I was a bit hasty with the calls for a round of Hallelujah, though. We should note that the judge’s ruling wasn’t a complete exoneration. Looking at the wording, he didn’t say that the church was free to proceed with indoor services without penalty. He only determined that there was no standing ruling from any other court specifically barring them from doing so.

Why is that distinction important to these proceedings? Because the judge failed to completely dismiss the claim from Los Angeles County that the church should pay $20,000 in fines for violating an executive order from the county. So simply saying that there is no current order preventing them from doing so doesn’t mean that the county executive order might not still be legal and enforceable. And if that’s the case, the Pastor would wind up having to pay the thousands of dollars in fees anyway.

However, the judge also put off a decision on whether the non-denominational, evangelical megachurch should face sanctions for holding large indoor services in spite of the county’s guidelines.

Attorneys for the county asked a judge to impose sanctions of up to $20,000 against the church, saying it was in clear violation of health orders banning indoor church services in an effort to prevent spread of COVID-19.

So we still likely have one more round of hearings (at least) to go before we find out whether or not this particular mega-church is in the clear or not. I don’t know what sort of cash reserves Grace Community Church is sitting on at the moment, but we do know that many churches are suffering for resources during the pandemic due to diminished attendance. But Pastor MacArthur answered the county with a rather basic message in keeping with his faith. A direct quote from the Man of the Cloth:

When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar. Caesar himself is subject to God.”

Amen, Pastor.