Johnny Mac v. The State of California: A Pastor’s Battle to Feed His Flock Amid COVID-19

By: Luke Maher, staff member Vol 19

“We will obey God rather than men… We’re going to leave the results to Him”. These are the words of Grace Community Church head pastor John MacArthur. The person sometimes affectionately referred to as Johnny Mac by his followers has made it clear that he does not plan on abiding by California regulations prohibiting indoor church services. State officials sent MacArthur a cease and desist letter, threatening a fine of up to $1,000 dollars and imprisonment for up to 90 days.  MacArthur has not changed his tune, and the church has continued to hold indoor services without mask or social-distancing requirements since late July.

 In the executive shut-down order penned by Governor Newsom, he emphasized that except where absolutely necessary, people need to stay in their homes in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Newsom noted that though people still need to leave their homes to access food and other essentials, they should “at all times practice social distancing”.

The Litigation

The legal battle is ongoing. In August, MacArthur filed a lawsuit against California’s governor for violation of state equal protection and due process rights. The complaint alleges that, among other things, the state violated the church’s state constitutional right to practice its religion freely.

Regarding the free exercise of religion claim, the government action restricting the Church’s religious freedom must “advance interests of the highest order” and be “narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests.” This test is known as “strict scrutiny,” and it sets a very high bar for the state to clear. The plaintiffs allege that the government is not furthering an interest of the highest order. The crux of the complaint relies on the assertion that “the cure has become more deadly than the disease.”

The complaint makes two main arguments: First, it argues that the government interests alleged by the state do not meet strict scrutiny because COVID is not as serious as other diseases. It also argues that the state is violating the Establishment clause by favoring nonreligion over religion in allowing protests but forbidding church services.

To support this assertion, the complaint argues that the state lacks a compelling interest in restricting religious practices because the virus is not as serious as other diseases. The complaint points out that the two leading causes of death in the state are heart disease and cancer, with both killing around 140 per 100,000. COVID, on the other hand, sees a death rate of only 26 per 100,000. The complaint alleges that the State erroneously relies on the infection rate rather than the death or hospitalization rate in determining “the state or phase of recovery”.

The complaint further alleges that the state sets hypocritical and uneven standards and even supports some activities that violate its COVID restrictions. For example, it cites numerous instances of California governor Gavin Newsom publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, while simultaneously preventing religious groups from meeting. It argues that the protestors violated health and safety protocols on a massive scale, yet faced no arrests or legal discipline.

MacArthur’s ongoing legal battle raises complicated questions regarding the First Amendment and the separation of Church and State. Does concern for public health outweigh our constitutional religious freedoms? In stressful times such as a pandemic, do religious people need access to their places of faith even more?

The Timeline

In August, a state superior court judge ruled that MacArthur’s church could continue indoor services without COVID restrictions. MacArthur called the order an “historic win”, but the victory was short-lived.

In September, that same Los Angeles superior court granted a preliminary injunction stopping the church from meeting indoors. A preliminary injunction is only granted when the party requesting the relief is likely to be successful at trial on the merits and there is a strong likelihood of irreparable harm unless the requested relief is granted.

The court refused to apply strict scrutiny, and thus found that the state was justified in restricting the Church’s ability to meet. The order does allow for outdoor services to be held, provided that churchgoers wear face masks and maintain social distancing. The church released a statement saying the government can’t dictate “the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.

The issues being litigated here boil down to optics. To deem some behaviors worthy of exception to the COVID guidelines and others unworthy is a dangerous place for the government to be. The Fist Amendment reigns supreme, and protecting it should take precedence. If people value their ability to worship with others on Sunday, more than respecting COVID guidelines, the government should respect that.

In order to justify its restrictions on religious activities, the state must pass the afore-mentioned strict scrutiny test. The state’s proffered justification, attempting to reduce the spread of COVID may be sufficient. However, the state’s discriminatory enforcement of its restriction policies poses additional questions about its intentions. Clearly California does not take the virus as seriously as it claims to, as evidenced by this uneven enforcement.

MacArthur has drawn praise for standing up for religious liberties as well as harsh condemnation for making light of a national health crisis. It will be interesting to see how the lawsuit plays out. It is currently still in the pleadings stage. The church shows no signs of yielding, though the LA Department of Public Health confirmed an outbreak of three positive cases on October 22nd.

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