The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a settlement to Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, which kept its doors open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic despite the county’s health order.
The county settled for $400,000, which will come from the county Health Department’s budget and will go to pay the church’s legal fees. The state will reportedly pay an additional $400,000 under the agreement.
“It appears that the county wants to settle this, because they do not want a trial,” the church’s pastor, John MacArthur, said from the pulpit in a video posted on Aug. 30.
MacArthur said the $400,000 will go to the Thomas Moore Society.
“Nothing comes to us except [the knowledge that] the Lord preserved and protected us through this,” he said. “We believe that God has designed us to live in a world of viruses and the best way to do that is to live together so that we build up our immune systems. People who are isolated … don’t have the normal defenses.”
Of reports of church members becoming ill with the virus, MacArthur said, “There is no evidence that can be traced back to Grace Church,” though he went on to acknowledge that the virus “probably went through the church in December or January.” MacArthur and his wife had their own bouts with COVID-19 in December.
Last year, Grace Community Church received multiple citations from Los Angeles County for continuing to hold indoor worship services after churches in 30 counties across California were ordered to stop holding worship services in July 2020. The county eventually sued the church in Aug. 2020 for continuing to hold indoor worship services.
The church, led by MacArthur, counter-sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti last August, claiming in a declaration that the county violated the church’s “free exercise of religion by criminalizing activity directly required by our faith.”
“As a church, we have a moral and religious obligation to continue allowing our congregants to gather in our sanctuary to worship the Lord,” MacArthur wrote in the declaration. “We see this action against us as an illegitimate misuse of power.”
The county argued that the public health order didn’t target religious gatherings but encompassed all circumstances that risked the spread of COVID-19.
On Aug. 31, however, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors approved the settlement with the church, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s strike of the ban on indoor church services in February, and the lift of most lockdown mandates in California on June 15.
“After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some public health safety measures could not apply to houses of worship, resolving this litigation is the responsible and appropriate thing to do,” the county’s counsel said in a statement to the LA Daily News. “From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Los Angeles County has been committed to protecting the health and safety of its residents. We are grateful to the county’s faith organizations for their continued partnership to keep their congregants and the entire community safe and protected from COVID-19.”
Reactions From Faith Leaders
The lawsuit and settlement highlight the conflict between religious freedom and public safety concerns that have been ongoing across the nation since the start of the pandemic.
MacArthur, a leading voice in the national evangelical community, published a “Biblical case for the church’s duty to remain open” in July 2020, saying that “Christ, not Caesar, is the head of the church.”
While Scripture commands believers to obey governing authority by “rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” MacArthur argued that “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church … government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.”
“Good morning everyone, I’m so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest,” MacArthur said last August, drawing attention to the presumed double standard that allowed hundreds to gather to protest police brutality and racial injustice, but prohibited church services.
Pastor Ché Ahn of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena also called attention to Newsom’s response to protests in a previous interview with The Epoch Times.
“When Newsom did a press conference right after the first major protests, he made statements like, ‘Your First Amendment rights must be protected. Your voices must be heard, you will be protected. We will not arrest you,’” Ahn said. “And then he said, ‘God bless you.’ When he said those things, we’re thinking to ourselves, ‘Well, what about our First Amendment rights?’”
Ahn sued Newsom in 2020 and won, with the judge issuing a statewide injunction against restrictions on churches and places of worship.
Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills “completely underestimated” the response of his congregation when his church reopened its doors in May of 2020.
Hibbs told The Epoch Times previously that “this has never happened in the history of America, where the church has been sequestered, let alone citizens.”
“A church of our size, people are depressed, people are having marital problems now. There’s people that are saying, ‘I can’t live like this. My boss told me I’m not essential. I feel like I’m going to kill myself,’” Hibbs said.
He said his church saw approximately 14,000 visitors every Sunday—and that during the pandemic, their online services climbed to 1 million viewers per month.
Other faith leaders, such as Baptist pastor Jonathan Leeman, urged MacArthur to reconsider, saying “civil disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment,” and that MacArthur’s church could meet outdoors.
“I am saying that, at least in this moment, a church could decide to do something besides all gathering together without selling out to Caesar,” Leeman wrote. “God’s kingdom is bigger than any one of our gatherings.”
Pastor John MacArthur’s office, as well as the office of Supervisors Hilda Solis, Holly Mitchell and Sheila Kuehl, didn’t respond to requests for comment by press deadline.