Church Challenges California’s Covid Restrictions in Religious Liberty Showdown

Church officials point to Black Lives Matter protests in new suit targeting worship regs

California governor Gavin Newsom / Getty Images
• August 15, 2020 4:59 am


A California church is challenging Democratic governor Gavin Newsom's restrictions on in-person worship in the state, arguing that the regulations unconstitutionally target religious groups.

The legal complaint draws a direct comparison between religious observances and Black Lives Matter protests that have occurred across the nation over the past months. It claims that if the protests are allowed to proceed without government interference, then in-person worship should be able to as well.  

"When many went to the streets to engage in ‘political protests’ against ‘racism’ and ‘police brutality,’ these protesters refused to comply with the pandemic restrictions," the complaint states. "Instead of enforcing the public health orders, public officials were all too eager to grant a de facto exception for these favored protesters."

The suit seeks to have the courts act to allow churches to resume in-person services without restrictions from state authorities.

"We are simply continuing to do today what we have done for the past 63 years, that Grace Community Church has been open to welcome the Los Angeles community and serve their spiritual needs," the church’s pastor, John MacArthur, said. "We will remain open and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who decide they want to come worship with us."

After shutting its doors at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Grace Community Church decided to resume in-person indoor services. The recommencement of services led the county to issue a letter on July 29 informing the church that resuming in-person services violated the county and state’s health orders.  

"The County requests that you immediately cease holding indoor worship services or other indoor gatherings, and adhere to the Health Officer Order directives governing activities at houses of worship," the letter stated. The church scored a legal victory on Friday when a state court rejected Los Angeles County's petition to shut down indoor services while the case makes its way through court.

The church launched the legal challenge with the assistance of the Thomas More Society, a religious liberty law firm. Jenna Ellis, one of the lead attorneys behind the complaint, told the Washington Free Beacon that restrictions on religious observances should receive heightened scrutiny because of constitutional protections. 

"It’s the position of the church that like any other type of risk that other people may take in coming to church, they’re adults and can decide for themselves," Ellis said. "If people want to come back to church and they want to participate, then that’s their choice. If they prefer to stay at home they can watch the livestream, but that’s their choice."

Grace Community Church’s decision to hold in-person services without mandating social distancing or masks provoked a response within the religious community in the state.

Gavin Ortlund, a pastor at a Baptist church in California, wrote a response arguing for places of worship to comply with the county’s health orders. The response stated that while religious observance is vital, the complicated nature of the situation called for a deference to public health guidance. 

"There have been cases where churches have not been careful and it has led to an outbreak of the virus. That does not do well for our witness," Ortlund told the Free Beacon"We need to have more grace on one another in the judgments that we make because it’s an unprecedented and complicated situation." 

Governor Newsom’s office did not respond to an email request for comment. This week, California became the first state to record more than 600,000 coronavirus cases. The confirmed case fatality rate in Los Angeles County fell from 4 percent in May to 2 percent in August, according to the Los Angeles Times. Doctors credited improved treatments, falling infection rates in elderly individuals, and controlling the spread in high-risk environments such as nursing homes. 

A hearing in the case is scheduled for September 4.