Los Angeles County is moving to hold a prominent megachurch pastor in contempt of court after he hosted three indoor services Sunday — effectively defying a late-night court order that his church must comply with California's coronavirus restrictions.
The county is claiming that Grace Community Church, led by pastor John MacArthur, should face $8,000 in fines — or $1,000 each for eight acts of contempt they're alleging. The county also seeks an additional $1,500 in fines for violations of court orders, bringing the total to $20,000.
"Defendants’ actions this past Sunday likewise constitute four separate violations of the TRO and Court of Appeal Order by each Defendant. Therefore, the Court should sanction each Defendant $1,500 per violation, for a total of $6,000 per Defendant," the request reads. Both MacArthur and his church are named as defendants.
Lodged on Wednesday, the county's contempt request underscored ongoing tension between churches and civil authorities imposing restrictions on worship.
"Grace Church cannot thumb its nose at the court when decisions don’t go its way," the order reads.
But MacArthur's attorney contends that the county is engaging in an "unconstitutional attack" on the church. “The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has decided to continue their unconstitutional attack against Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church," Jenna Ellis, attorney for MacArthur, told Fox News on Wednesday.
"The government attorneys are essentially asking the court to hold the church in contempt for being open for worship last Sunday. Pastor MacArthur is standing firm that church is essential and has no plans to yield to this tyrannical Board, which is clearly defying the Constitution’s mandate to protect religious liberty," she said.
A county press release portrayed turning to the courts as a last-ditch attempt after working with the church to ensure compliance with coronavirus regulations.
"Many faith organizations have willingly moved their services outdoors, which is permitted as long as public health guidelines are followed," the release read.
"Unfortunately, Grace Community Church has continued to hold large, indoor services that dramatically increase the potential for COVID-19 transmission. Los Angeles County reluctantly, and as a last resort, has turned to the courts to obtain compliance because, unfortunately, indoor services at the church have continued."
The county claims that MacArthur's church held three indoor services and refused to allow county health officials to access the church premises as they sought to verify compliance with its restraining order.
On Friday, a judge said MacArthur could hold church services, although an appeals court later issued a stay on the lower court's order, effectively blocking those services.
“I never thought I would see the day when government officials in the United States of America would try to hold a church in contempt for peacefully exercising their religion," First Liberty Special Counsel Jeremy Dys told Fox News on Tuesday.
He said Los Angeles officials would rather fine or imprison an American pastor instead of reaching an agreement that supports religious freedom.
"The law has always required the government to prove — not speculate — that a church is causing actual harm before depriving it of its civil and constitutional rights," Dys said.
Dys' organization, First Liberty, represents religious organizations throughout the country that have been affected byd coronavirus regulations. In May, First Liberty joined with Franklin Graham and other faith leaders in calling for Congress to grant religious organizations legal immunity from potential negligence lawsuits.
L.A. county seemed most concerned about MacArthur holding service in-doors, which they said "dramatically increase[s] the potential for COVID-19 transmission."
It added that the county "continues to extend its hand to Grace Community Church with a standing offer to share educational awareness and practical guidance for conducting services outdoors, in ways that prioritize the health of their congregation as well as the broader community."
But religious liberty advocates argue that they face a double standard compared to protesters who turned out in the wake of George Floyd's death in May.
"I'm so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest,” MacArthur said during a service earlier this month.
In June, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., urged the Justice Department to investigate whether state officials applied coronavirus restrictions differently to George Floyd protests than to religious gatherings.
"Under the First Amendment, state officials must not treat religious persons and groups worse than others, and they must not favor one kind of speech over another," Hawley wrote in a letter to Attorney General William Barr.