LA County Cancels Church’s Parking Lot Lease Amid Pandemic Dispute

LA County Cancels Church’s Parking Lot Lease Amid Pandemic Dispute
Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, Calif. on Sept. 2, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Matthew Vadum

After Los Angeles County failed for a fourth time during the current pandemic to convince a judge to shut down indoor services at a popular Christian megachurch, the county is moving to evict the congregation from a parking lot it’s been using for 45 years.

Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church of the Valley claim they are being booted from the land used for parking that they have leased nonstop from the county since 1975 as an act of retaliation by the county whose officials have been rebuffed repeatedly by the courts. The church pays the county $8,300 per month in rent for the land, according to the lease.

A letter purporting to signal the end of the church’s lease on a large portion of its current parking lot was issued by the county’s Department of Public Works on Aug. 28, according to the Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm specializing in religious freedom issues. The letter, which provides a copy of a lease signed by the church and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and dated July 25, 2001, offers no explanation for the county’s sudden interest in terminating the lease.

The house of worship was given just 30 days to vacate the property its members have been using for almost half a century.

The author of the letter, Mark Pestrella, director of public works, didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

The county “is retaliating against Grace Community Church for simply exercising their constitutionally protected right to hold church and challenging an unreasonable, unlawful health order,” attorney Jenna Ellis, special counsel to the Thomas More Society, said in a statement.

“In America, we have a judicial system to ensure that the executive branch does not abuse its power, and Grace Community Church has every right to be heard without fear of reprisal. The Democrats’ message to Americans is clear—if you don’t bow to every whim of tyranny, the government will come after you.”

The sole reason for the eviction “is because John MacArthur stood up to their unconstitutional power grab,” Ellis said. “This is harassment, abusive, and unconscionable.”

The Grace Community Church parking lot, Sun Valley, Calif. on Sept. 2, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
The Grace Community Church parking lot, Sun Valley, Calif. on Sept. 2, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Although efforts to shut down the church have been unsuccessful, the county’s lawsuit continues. The next hearing in the case is set for Sept. 4 in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat, has ordered electricity and water turned off at homes and businesses that the county claimed aren’t complying with public health orders aimed at combating the CCP virus that causes the sometimes fatal disease COVID-19.

A month ago, Garcetti said that those hosting what he called “egregious” gatherings amid the pandemic would be punished.

“While we have already closed all bars and nightclubs, these large house parties have essentially become nightclubs,” he said, as reported by Deadline. “The same thing we would do with businesses.”
The county’s most recent request for a temporary restraining order against the church was heard Aug. 24, and the next day, Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff of the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles County denied the order, citing “the absence of new law or circumstances” justifying the granting of the injunction.

California began ordering businesses to close almost six months ago.

On March 19, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, ordered almost all establishments, including churches, to shut down. On June 18, Los Angeles houses of worship were allowed to conduct reduced-capacity indoor operations. Reported cases of the CCP virus began to increase.

In July, most indoor activities were again banned. Places of worship in California are now restricted to a maximum of 25 percent of building capacity or 100 attendees indoors, whichever is lower, and singing and chanting are forbidden.

MacArthur said in court documents that the church suspended in-person services on March 12, before the county or state-issued stay-at-home orders banning large gatherings. Services were conducted online.

But after not holding in-person services for 19 weeks, church elders voted unanimously at a board meeting on July 23 to reopen the church for such services, MacArthur said. Indoor services began July 26 and were followed by a cease-and-desist letter from the county on July 29.