A California church challenged local coronavirus restrictions on worship services, and county authorities responded by canceling the church's five-decade-old lease.
County officials informed Grace Community Church that it will terminate its decades-old lease on a parking lot after the church filed a lawsuit over local restrictions against in-person worship. The county told the church in a letter it intends to terminate the lease of a large section of the parking lot that the church leases, threatening to forcibly remove any of the church's property that remained in the lot.
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"If Grace fails to vacate the premise as required, the District may enter the premises and remove Grace's personal property in accordance with the Agreement and applicable law, and Grace will be responsible for any resultant expenses incurred by the District," the letter states.
Jenna Ellis, special counsel to the Thomas More Society, said the move is meant to punish a religious organization for requesting the same privileges afforded to protesters. She accused county officials of attempting to "abuse their power through burdensome, restrictive, and unconstitutional orders" and retaliate against those who object.
"L.A. County is clearly trying to evict Grace Church from use of their parking lot for no other reason than because Pastor John [MacArthur] stood firm and is challenging their power," she said. "This is the essence of tyranny."
The Public Works Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment concerning the alleged retaliation. The church has leased the parking lot since 1975 without interruption. The county has given the church until October 1 to vacate the lot. Ellis, a Trump campaign adviser, said that the presidential election should not make people lose sight of how critical local elections are to the preservation of First Amendment rights.
"This kind of blatant retaliation from government shows why state and local elections are so critically important," she said. "We have to put in office at every level people who understand their obligation is to protect and preserve the rights of pastors like John MacArthur to assemble and freely exercise religion."
The church returned to in-person indoor services in July following more than a month of protests tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. While state and local officials turned a blind eye to—and in some cases participated in—the demonstrations that attracted tens of thousands of people, church leaders filed suit. The lawsuit argues that the ongoing state and local coronavirus restrictions violate the church's First Amendment rights and unconstitutionally favor political protests over religious services.
The church won a temporary victory last week when a judge rejected the county's attempt to obtain a temporary restraining order to shut down church services. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.