On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff ruled against Grace Community Church and its pastor, John MacArthur, issuing a preliminary injunction allowing Los Angeles County to ban indoor church services. MacArthur’s lawyers, Trump attorney Jenna Ellis and Thomas More Society lawyer Charles LiMandri, announced their intention to appeal at the earliest opportunity.
“Although this is a temporary setback, we will continue to fight for Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church’s constitutionally protected right to hold church,” Ellis said in a statement. “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.”
“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,” Ellis added.
While Ellis noted that the judge went “out of his way to repeatedly state that he is not ruling on the merits,” LiMandri excoriated the court for failing to address the church’s serious legal concerns.
“We are disappointed in the ruling on the preliminary injunction as the court did not apply the strict scrutiny analysis to the government order that we believe is required by the California Constitution and legal precedent,” he said. “The court also did not properly consider the medical and scientific evidence that the current number of people with serious COVID-19 symptoms no longer justifies a shuttering of the churches.”
“Nor do we believe that the court gave adequate consideration to the fact that churches have been treated as second-class citizens compared to the tens of thousands of protestors,” LiMandri added. “More than ever, California’s churches are essential. Therefore, we plan to appeal this ruling to ultimately vindicate our clients’ constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.”
Pastor MacArthur called the ruling “inexplicable.”
“The judge said the ‘scale tipped in favor of the county.’ 1/100th of 1% of Californians with a virus apparently wins over the U.S. Constitution and religious freedom for all? That is not what our founders said,” the pastor said. “Nor is that what God says, who gave us our rights that our government—including the judicial branch—is supposed to protect. The scale should always tip in favor of liberty, especially for churches.”
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 this preliminary injunction.
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.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.