A California judge on Thursday issued an injunction prohibiting John MacArthur and Grace Community Church from meeting indoors for worship services during the pandemic, thus handing Los Angeles County the ruling it has sought for several weeks.
Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff, in an 18-page decision, ruled that the county’s health order banning large indoor gatherings “has a real and substantial relationship to public health and safety.”
MacArthur and the church have defied the county and state restrictions on indoor worship.
“The court finds the balance of harms tips in favor of the County,” Beckloff wrote. “The potential consequences of community spread of COVID-19 and concomitant risk of death to members of the community – associated and unassociated with the Church – outweighs the harm that flows from the restriction on indoor worship caused by the County Health Order.”
The church can legally worship outdoors, Beckloff noted.
“While the court is mindful that there is no substitute for indoor worship in the ‘spiritual refuge’ of a sanctuary, the court cannot ignore the County Health Order does not dictate a ban on worship. Instead, it provides any worship must take place other than indoors,” Beckloff wrote. “The County Health Order allows worship to occur outdoors, virtually through the internet and in any manner that is not indoors with a large gathering of people. This feature of the County Health Order mitigates – but certainly does not eliminate – the harm that will be suffered by the Church's congregants through restricting their indoor worship.”
The county has “demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims,” the judge ruled.
Thomas More Society, which is representing Grace Community Church in court, said it will appeal the ruling. Thomas More Society special counsel Charles LiMandri said the judge “did not apply the strict scrutiny analysis to the government order that we believe is required by the California Constitution and legal precedent.”
“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,” LiMandri said. “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. 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.”
Beckloff favorably quoted Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who in May voted with the majority in a 5-4 decision declining to issue an injunction against California’s restrictions on churches.
The county’s order does not target churches, Beckloff wrote.
“Instead, it applies generally to all activities where people congregate indoors, often for long periods of time,” he wrote. “In fact, in large part, the focus of the County Health Order's restrictions appears to be on indoor activities. These restrictions operate evenly without regard to religion or activities specifically attributable to religious worship. For example, the County Health Order closes lounges, nightclubs, bars, movie theaters, live performance theaters, concert venues, theme parks, indoor dining, museums, zoos, aquariums and festivals. It precludes all events and gatherings, not merely those events or gatherings with religious motivation.”
The county has “established a likelihood of success in defending against a free exercise claim based on the federal Constitution” because the order “is neutral on its face and in its application,” Beckloff wrote.
Photo courtesy: John MacArthur Facebook
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.