Earlier this week, we looked at the story of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California and Pastor John MacArthur’s battle with the county and the state over holding in-person, indoor services at his church. Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff had ruled in favor of the church based on the fact that there were “no previous court rulings” forbidding the church from holding such services. But at the same time, the judge left open the question of whether or not the county could impose fines of up to $20,000 on the church for violating executive orders issued by the county government regarding large assemblies during the pandemic.
Now the second round of appeals has been heard and Judge Beckloff appears content to allow things to continue as they have been thus far. The county had moved to request a restraining order on the pastor, preventing him from continuing to hold indoor services. The judge shot them down yet again, but he still failed to rule on the larger question of whether or not the county’s rules violated the church’s First Amendment rights. Instead, he went with yet another technical argument. (CBS Los Angeles)
A judge has denied a fourth attempt by Los Angeles County for a temporary restraining order against a Sun Valley church for holding indoor worship services under the county’s coronavirus orders.
California Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff found the latest filing against Grace Community Church and pastor John MacArthur both procedurally and substantively defective.
The court held that the county’s attempt to obtain a restraining order did not meet statutory requirements and that a previous order did not justify a new temporary restraining order, but simply stayed an Aug. 14 order and gave the county permission to enforce its own health order.
It seems rather obvious to me why these dramatic courtroom debates are playing out this way. The county wants its executive dictates enforced, but they don’t want to be responsible for the headlines and video of law enforcement dragging Pastor MacArthur out of his church in handcuffs. They would prefer to have the court issue an injunction and then ask the state to do the dirty work if the Pastor remains in defiance of its rules. Pastor MacArthur originally went after Governor Newsom in his lawsuit, but the Governor doesn’t want to touch this hot mess with a ten-foot pole.
That means both sides are leaning on the judge to play the tough cop so they don’t have to get their hands dirty. Unfortunately for them, Judge Beckloff is having none of it. The only ruling the judge was willing to make said that the request for an injunction was “procedurally and substantively defective” and that it failed to meet statutory requirements. In other words, it’s possible that the court might grant them an injunction against the pastor, but they’ll have to send their attorneys back to the drawing board to clean up their work and submit the request yet again.
The judge further refused to comment on the threat to impose tens of thousands of dollars in fines on the church. He’s basically telling the county that they can try to fine the pastor if they like. He’s not going to stop them. But, of course, the moment they do it the pastor will appeal the fines and they’ll be right back in the same court where they started.
What the judge may inadvertently be doing here is offering both the church and the county an opportunity to run out the clock. While California has been experiencing some periodic incidents of resurgence of the virus, the state is still slowly but surely moving through the phases of reopening. Sooner or later, the ban on indoor church services is going to be lifted. At that point, this entire lawsuit will be moot and the county can walk away without looking like they caved to the church. But the pastor will still have been able to continue his services without the thumb of the government on his back. While that may not be satisfying to some religious freedom enthusiasts, it might wind up being the best we could hope for.