Culture

John MacArthur Lawyers Up as LA Threatens Jail Time Over in-Person Church Services

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti via AP, File)

Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, Calif., have retained two prominent attorneys in response to a cease-and-desist letter threatening jail time or a $1,000 daily fine for continued violations of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D-Calif.) order shutting down churches. Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Garcetti has allowed protests to continue nightly in LA and certain kinds of businesses remain open.

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.

MacArthur is not budging, and he plans to bring legal action if the city carries out its threats.

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.

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“Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church are not disobeying the Constitution; it is California’s Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti that are defying their constitutional obligation to protect religious freedom and church assembly,” Ellis said in a statement.

“Our American system of government specifically recognizes that our individual, fundamental right to free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly is a pre-political, God-given, inalienable right. That right is not given by the government or the Constitution, but rather, government is mandated by the Constitution to preserve and protect it for the church,” the Trump lawyer added. “Grace Community Church has every right to assemble without impossible and unreasonable infringement from the state, and the state has absolutely no power to impose the restrictions it is demanding.”

“Church is essential, and the government has no power to arbitrate whether religious organizations are essential. This is not about health and safety, it is about targeting churches,” Ellis concluded.

LiMandri argued that California is discriminating against churches by banning religious services but allowing protests to continue and allowing abortion clinics, retail outlets, and marijuana dispensaries to remain open.

“It is unconstitutional for Governor Newsom and the State of California to discriminate against churches by treating them less favorably than other organizations and activities that are not protected by the First Amendment,” he argued. “Pastor MacArthur and his church, as well as all churches, are entitled to practice their religion without government interference.”

“This is especially the case when the government has given free rein to protestors, and is not similarly restricting marijuana dispensaries, large retail outlets and factories, and abortion providers,” LiMandri insisted. “The government orders are also unconstitutional because there is no compelling need for the onerous restrictions on the churches at this time. The hospitals are not overwhelmed and the percentage death rate from COVID-19 is now extremely small.”

“It is time for Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti to recognize what President Trump has already proclaimed: Churches are providing an ‘essential’ service to the people. Therefore, they must be allowed to serve the people in the manner in which God has called them,” he concluded.

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While MacArthur should have a strong legal case, it may not come to that. The City of LA hired a private lawyer to send the cease-and-desist letter, and Garcetti likely does not want the optics of fining or arresting a pastor as prominent as John MacArthur.

In a case of legal malpractice, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberals and upheld the State of Nevada’s coronavirus restrictions allowing casinos to remain open while shuttering churches. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito shredded that decision in powerful dissents, but it remains to be seen whether or not Roberts would reconsider this position in a somewhat similar case.

Religious freedom is a core American principle, and more than that, MacArthur has chosen to follow God rather than man. Not all Christians would agree that delaying in-person services violates God’s commandment — I would have preferred for Grace Community Church members to wear masks and use social distancing during the service, and it appears they did not — but this act of defiance should be a wake-up call for America.

It is outrageous and shameful that California allows massive crowds to congregate and abortion clinics to operate while it shutters churches.

Gov. Newsom has reportedly threatened to cut off power to any church that continues to meet in-person. Yet he is facing a large movement of civil disobedience. A network of California churches sued him last month and many churches throughout the state have vowed to hold in-person worship services despite the state ban on gatherings.

“This is not the first time we as Christ’s church have stood for Truth,” MacArthur said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to stand firm for the Truth today like we have every prior day in our 63-year history and as the biblical New Testament Church has done for more than 2000 years. We stand firm to continue fulfilling our biblical mandate from Christ to proclaim the Gospel and assemble together, and I earnestly hope that our stance will encourage other pastors, churches, and the general public across America and the world to also stand firm for biblical Truth. Church is essential.”

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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