Los Angeles County has expressed its intention to haul Grace Community Church (GCC) Pastor John MacArthur back into court, attempting to secure a contempt ruling against him, which would involve hefty fines. On Monday, an LA superior court judge punted on contempt, but the county told MacArthur’s lawyers that it intends to refile charges in another court. Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff issued a preliminary injunction allowing LA County to ban indoor church services, but the church has appealed the injunction.
MacArthur’s lawyers argue that since they are challenging the preliminary injunction, any contempt proceedings should wait until the underlying constitutionality of the county’s coronavirus lockdown orders has been fully litigated. Yet Los Angeles has refused to wait, instead rushing to use a constitutionally dubious order as a cudgel against Christians who insist on going to church.
Jenna Ellis, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney and an attorney for MacArthur, told PJ Media that she will continue to fight on behalf of MacArthur and the church.
“Pastor MacArthur has remained firm in his conviction and constitutionally protected right that church is essential. We look forward to continuing our advocacy on behalf of Grace Community Church and religious freedom,” Ellis said.
The religious freedom battle
MacArthur and his church had challenged lockdown orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) and LA County while continuing to meet in person. LA County had tried — no fewer than four times — to convince judges to issue restraining orders preventing the church from gathering in person.
Rather than enforcing the existing health order, which imposes a fine of $1,000 and jail time, the county has sought court orders, ostensibly to shift blame to the court but also to penalize the church further. The county has asked a judge to find MacArthur and his church in contempt of court, which would cost the church more than $20,000 and attorney’s fees. Courts repeatedly rejected these shenanigans until the preliminary injunction on September 10.
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.
In an ultimate sign of pettiness, LA County canceled the church’s lease to its parking lot.
Charles LiMandri, one of MacArthur’s lawyers, noted that California “has given free rein to protestors, and is not similarly restricting marijuana dispensaries, large retail outlets and factories, and abortion providers.”
“Nothing about this is truly about health. It’s an unconstitutional power grab,” Ellis told PJ Media earlier this month.
When Beckloff issued the injunction earlier this month, Ellis condemned the county’s arguments as tyrannical.
“Church is essential, and no government agent has the runaway, unlimited power to force churches to close indefinitely. The County’s argument was basically ‘because we can,’ which is the very definition of tyranny,” she said. “Without limiting government’s power in favor of freedom and protected rights, we have no liberty. We will fight for religious freedom, as our founders did when they wrote the First Amendment.”
This legal battle is far from over.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.