On Thursday, a Los Angeles superior court judge again ruled against LA County, delaying a decision on whether or not to find Grace Community Church (GCC) and Senior Pastor John MacArthur in contempt of court and declaring that the church and the pastor deserve a trial for their lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newson’s (D-Calif.) and Los Angeles’ coronavirus restrictions preventing indoor church services. Since LA’s superior court will not hold civil trials until January 2021, this decision effectively allows GCC to keep holding church services until next year.
MacArthur and his church have 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 Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff issued a preliminary injunction allowing LA County to ban indoor church services on September 10. The church has also appealed that injunction.
LA County again attempted to slap contempt fines on GCC and MacArthur this week, but Beckloff agreed that there are serious constitutional concerns in the case that have not been fully tried. Because a contempt hearing is a quasi-criminal proceeding, Beckloff agreed that MacArthur and GCC are entitled to constitutional protections at a trial for their case. Potential proceedings on contempt of court must wait until after a trial on the merits.
“This is significant because no person can or should be held in contempt of a constitutionally invalid order,” Jenna Ellis, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and counsel for GCC and MacArthur, said in a statement. “Los Angeles County continues to presume that its order is valid, with utter disregard for First Amendment protections.”
“It’s tyranny to even suggest that a government action cannot be challenged and must be obeyed without question. This case goes to the heart of what our founders designed for the purpose of legitimate government—not to be above the rule of law,” Ellis added. “Pastor MacArthur is simply holding church, which is clearly his constitutionally protected right in this country.”
“This ruling prevents Los Angeles County’s attempted rush to judgment in its continued prosecution of Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church for courageously exercising their First Amendment rights,” Charles LiMandri, a special counsel at the Thomas More Society and another of MacArthur’s lawyers, said in a statement. “We are pleased that Judge Beckloff indicated he agreed with the major points that we made on behalf of Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church and we are very gratified that the judge’s ruling today reflects that he appreciates the importance of the constitutionally protected rights at issue in this case.”
“We are holding church. The Lord Jesus requires us to meet together and we will continue to do that because we are commanded to and because it is our right,” MacArthur said. “I’m very grateful to Judge Beckloff for providing full due process and recognizing the importance of these constitutional protections.”
“The reality is that the county cannot show that their order is even rational, much less necessary. They have also applied their orders arbitrarily and discriminatorily against churches and we enjoy a heightened protection in America to hold church. I’ll continue to stand firm and we will continue to fight to protect religious freedom for the church,” the pastor added.
Charles LiMandri, one of MacArthur’s lawyers, previously 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.
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.
Beckloff was right to rule that GCC and MacArthur deserve a trial on the merits. Ironically, LA County’s own coronavirus restrictions will delay that trial until next year, granting the church effective protection until then.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.