Grace Community Church and its pastor, John MacArthur, could be facing thousands of dollars in fines under a contempt of court request filed this week by Los Angeles County.
The congregation met indoors on Sunday, defying a California court of appeals panel that upheld restrictions by the state and the county limiting worship to outdoor settings during the pandemic. MacArthur told attendees Sunday morning the church wasn’t wanting to “be rebellious” but simply wanting to obey God.
“We’re meeting because our Lord has commanded us to come together and worship Him,” he said.
Now, Los Angeles County is asking the court to hold Grace Community Church, MacArthur and other defendants in contempt of court and to fine each defendant $10,000.
“Grace Church cannot thumb its nose at the Court when decisions don’t go its way,” the county argues in a brief filed in California Superior Court.
The county’s brief also notes the court has the power to place defendants in jail up to five days, although the county’s legal brief doesn’t specifically request that.
“Defendants first deliberately disobeyed State and County public health orders. Now, they are willfully violating two Court Orders,” the county’s brief says, referencing the indoor gatherings but also an alleged denial of county health officials’ access to the property.
“The purpose of these public health orders – and the Court Orders upholding their validity – is to combat community transmission of COVID-19 by avoiding ‘superspreader’ events of the sort Defendants are conducting – where thousands of people sit shoulder-to-shoulder, singing and not wearing masks in an indoor setting,” the county says. “In doing so, Defendants are placing themselves and the community at large in grave risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, a highly contagious disease for which there is no vaccine or treatment, and slowing the County’s progress in the fight against this pandemic.”
Grace Community Church is “permitted to worship outdoors with unlimited attendance,” the county says in the request.
“But that is not enough for them. They are publicly advertising their intention to continue flouting State and County public health orders and the Court Orders by holding mass services indoors,” the county argues.
The county’s brief also quotes MacArthur, who told members on Sunday, “So the good news is you’re here, you’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks.”
“Defendants’ deliberate decision to violate the Court Orders constitutes contempt of court,” the brief says.
Jenna Ellis, who is representing the church as special counsel for the Thomas More Society, said the county is wrong.
“The LA County Board of Supervisors has decided to continue their unconstitutional attack against Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. They are now asking the court to hold the church in contempt for simply being open for worship last Sunday,” Ellis said. “Pastor MacArthur is standing firm that church is essential and has no plans to yield to this tyrannical board, which is clearly defying the constitution’s mandate to protect religious liberty.”
The church is asking supporters to contact the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and relay “the simple message that church is essential.” (The contact information for supervisors is on the church’s website here.)
“Pastor John and our unanimous Board of Elders at Grace Community Church are standing firm that church is essential and we are protected in California and the United States to serve our church community and fulfill the commands of Scripture to worship together,” the church said in a statement. “The LA County Board of Supervisors are continuing to try to shut down our church, and we hope to show them our earnestness in our faith and practice in obedience to our Lord, and that we do not have a spirit of rebellion.”
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.