iScreenshot from video taken inside Grace Community Church on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020.
John MacArthur’s defiance of California’s public health restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 has netted the church $800,000 — not because MacArthur told the truth about the pandemic but because the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that California couldn’t restrict church gatherings even in a public health emergency.
News of this settlement came two days after MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, for the first time publicly acknowledged there had been an outbreak of COVID-19 within the church several months ago and that both he and his wife had fallen ill from it.
In a surprise ending to a drama that has played out in national news for more than a year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Aug. 31 voted to authorize a $400,000 payment to Grace Community Church. Under the agreement, the church will receive an additional $400,000 from the state of California.
The settlement is to resolve ongoing litigation between the church against the state and county.
The shifting Supreme Court
In one sense, the California church has Mitch McConnell to thank for this legal settlement. It is because of McConnell’s hardball tactics as then-Senate majority leader that conservatives gained a working majority on the Supreme Court shortly after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Amy Coney Barrett’s rapid confirmation to replace Ginsburg happened during the pandemic, and it changed the way the court’s majority ruled on cases about COVID and religious liberty. Ginsburg died Sept. 18, 2020. Barrett was confirmed to replace her just five weeks later, on Oct. 25, 2020 — two weeks before the presidential election lost by Donald Trump.
Prior to Ginsburg’s death, the high court generally had rebuffed requests to intervene in various cases brought by churches claiming their rights to freely exercise religious belief were being wrongly blocked by COVID-19 restrictions.
Amy Coney Barrett’s rapid confirmation to replace Ginsburg happened during the pandemic, and it changed the way the court’s majority ruled on cases about COVID and religious liberty.
That all began to change on Nov. 26, one month after Barrett’s confirmation, when the court blocked New York’s restrictions on attendance at religious worship services in certain zones to contain the spread of COVID. Then on Dec. 3, the court sided with a California church protesting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s health restrictions. And on Friday night, Feb. 5, the court ruled that California had gone too far in restricting public worship during the pandemic. The case was brought not by Grace Community Church but by two other evangelical churches. Then on Friday, April 9, in another late-night ruling — an unsigned 5-4 opinion — the court sided with some California pastors who protested home Bible study restrictions imposed by the state as public health cautions.
Prior to this point, state courts and lower federal courts had been siding with the state of California and Los Angeles County, finding that the state and county had a compelling interest to restrict all indoor gatherings of large crowds.
‘There is no pandemic’
MacArthur, who is known internationally for his preaching, writing and radio broadcasts, not only repeatedly defied county health orders but also declared the threat of COVID-19 had been overblown. He became one of the most visible COVID-deniers among evangelical pastors, declaring at one point that “there is no pandemic.”
Several times during the first round of the pandemic he denied existed, rumors swirled about reported virus outbreaks from the church, which was meeting indoors without social distancing or masks.
And then in late December, MacArthur disappeared from public view for several weeks. Church leaders said he simply needed time to rest. But the timing of his disappearance coincided with one of the reported COVID-spreader events at the church, perhaps linked to a staff Christmas party.
On Sunday, Aug. 29, MacArthur for the first time confirmed that “many people” in the church contracted coronavirus and “it probably went through our church in maybe December or January.”
On Sunday, Aug. 29, MacArthur for the first time confirmed that “many people” in the church contracted coronavirus and “it probably went through our church in maybe December or January.” He also confirmed that he and his wife, Patricia, had been among those who were ill.
Nevertheless, he continued to downplay the threat of COVID-19 and the need for mass vaccination. He told his church: “The natural immunity that God has designed is the greatest protection” and that “God has a way of taking care of us as we love each other and share our germs.”
Rationale for the settlement
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed Aug. 31 to authorize the $400,000 payment to settle its legal battle with Grace Community Church and MacArthur. County officials said the agreement was precipitated by the Supreme Court’s February ruling.
“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,” according to a statement from county officials. “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.”
MacArthur said any settlement money received by the church would go to the Thomas More Society, which represented the church in its litigation. The Thomas More Society is a nonprofit legal group that represents conservative causes, including anti-abortion cases and cases that involve free exercise of religion.
One of the lead attorneys on the Grace Community Church case, representing Thomas More, was Jenna Ellis, who also was serving as counsel to Donald Trump during and after the 2020 presidential campaign. Ellis is among a group of Trump supporters — most famously including Rudy Giuliani — who insist the presidential election was fraudulent and that Trump actually won, despite no actual evidence to that effect.
The Los Angeles Times obtained a letter MacArthur wrote to supporters of the John MacArthur Charitable Trust, in which MacArthur called the settlement a “monumental victory” and said “there is no circumstance that can cause the church to close. The church is not only a building but is the bride of Christ and exists to proclaim the truth.”