On Thursday, Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, Calif., filed a lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.), Mayor Eric Garcetti (D-Los Angeles), and other state and local officials, claiming that coronavirus orders prohibiting in-person worship services while officials encourage politically-favored protests violate the California Constitution. After Newsom ordered churches to shut on July 13, Grace Community Church announced it would remain open.
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 lawsuit filed Thursday seeks a court injunction preventing government officials from enforcing the order. “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,” MacArthur said in a statement.
The lawsuit argues that the American people have witnessed that “the onerous restrictions imposed on them by public officials to allegedly fight the COVID-19 pandemic simply do not apply to certain, favored groups. When many went to the streets to engage in ‘political’ or ‘peaceful’ protests purportedly against racism and police brutality, these protestors refused to comply with the pandemic restrictions. Instead of enforcing the public health orders, public officials were all too eager to grant a de facto exception for these favored protestors.”
While government officials could have shut down the anti-racism protests just as Newsom banned anti-lockdown protests, they instead decided to encourage the anti-racism protesters to “express” their “rage” so the public could “hear” it. Officials even gave the protesters a pass on wearing masks.
This favoritism has “caused amazing harm,” the lawsuit alleges. “As explained by Los Angeles County’s Public Health Director, the ‘George Floyd’ protests caused a spike in coronavirus cases in June and July 2020.” Californians in the 20-50 age bracket also experienced “mitigation fatigue,” breaking pandemic restrictions and increasing the spread of the virus.
“But amazingly, although California’s and Los Angeles’s refusal to enforce their pandemic restrictions against favored protestors has led to a spike in coronavirus infection rates—with the causal connection undisputed by the parties—that refusal to enforce has not led to any spike in hospitalizations and deaths. Instead, the rates of actual harm flowing from the pandemic have continued to spiral downwards to negligibility,” the lawsuit notes.
This turn of events “irreparably damaged the confidence of Americans—and Californians
especially—who now realize that the pandemic restrictions are neither necessary nor good,” the lawsuit claims.
“With deaths from the ‘COVID-19 suicide pandemic’ exceeding those from the actual coronavirus pandemic, Grace Community Church decided that it would no longer sit by and watch its members and their children suffer from an absence of essential religious worship and instruction.” At this, the County of Los Angeles sent a demand letter, and now the church has decided to take action.
“It is time for California to recognize that disfavored religious minorities are not second-class citizens. It is time for California to explain how it can justify banning worship to prevent the spread of a disease (with an overall mortality rate of 0.02%) while it is fine for protestors to spread that disease like wildfire,” the lawsuit declares.
Grace Community Church and MacArthur claim that California and LA’s double standard violates the state’s constitution in six different ways. It violates the church’s free exercise of religion, its due process rights, its free speech rights, equal protection under the law, and two kinds of separation of powers issues. According to the lawsuit, the restrictions are not narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest, so they do not satisfy “strict scrutiny” and therefore fall outside the purview of an executive order. The restrictions also violate the California Constitution’s separation of powers because the underlying law behind the orders is unconstitutional.
“Pastor MacArthur and his church, as well as all churches, are entitled to practice their religion without government interference,” Charles LiMandri, founder of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and counsel with the Thomas More Society, said in a statement. “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.”
“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,” added Jenna Ellis, senior legal adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign and private counsel to President Donald Trump. Ellis and LiMandri are among the lawyers representing MacArthur in the suit.
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.
Newsom’s horrific coronavirus double standard cannot stand. His policy of allowing, and even encouraging, one kind of protest while outlawing another would be bad enough. The governor’s decision to then ban indoor church services in the name of health was just obscene. This lawsuit will be hard to ignore.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.