Advertisement
Share

Why L.A. County paid $400,000 to a church that violated coronavirus rules

A crowd of people walk toward a church
Grace Community Church congregants make their way to Sunday service in Sun Valley last September. The church regularly held packed morning services, defying a court order directing them to refrain from holding indoor services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Sunday after Sunday, people packed Grace Community Church and belted out hymns, openly violating Los Angeles County’s prohibitions against indoor services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last summer, county officials sued the Sun Valley church.

At the time, the legality of government restrictions on religious freedoms during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic leaned in the county’s favor.

Events on the other side of the country would change that, however, at a cost to taxpayers.

On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a settlement that will pay the church $400,000 for legal fees from defending the lawsuit.

The California state government, which had enacted similar restrictions on indoor church services as the county, will also pay $400,000 to the church for legal fees.

Advertisement

L.A. County spent more than $900,000 on fees to its own outside attorneys to litigate the case against the church, as well as to defend against a countersuit by the church.

In a statement, county public health officials said the settlement was prompted by U.S. Supreme Court rulings that restricted public health measures against houses of worship.

Because of those rulings, “resolving this litigation is the responsible and appropriate thing to do,” they said.

The change in the legal landscape was set in motion abruptly by the death of the Supreme Court’s liberal lion, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, last September, legal experts said.

Four months earlier, the court had rejected a Chula Vista church’s challenge to California’s indoor worship restrictions.

County attorneys reasonably anticipated that the court would continue along those lines, said Barry P. McDonald, a professor at the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.

Religious leaders from Mississippi to San Diego County are suing, asserting they are being treated differently from businesses that can remain open.

But after Ginsburg’s death and the appointment of ultra-conservative Amy Coney Barrett, the court went in a different direction.

In February, after Barrett joined, the court lifted California’s ban on indoor religious services, while allowing capacity restrictions as well as restrictions on singing and chanting.

Two months later, in Tandon vs. Newsom, the court ruled that California could not prevent people from gathering in homes for Bible study and prayer meetings.

This was the fifth time the Supreme Court had rejected the lower court’s analysis in a case involving California’s COVID-19 restrictions on freedom of religion, the majority opinion noted.

“Even if Roberts is going to side with the three remaining liberals, now you have five very solid conservative votes in favor of religion and who are going to give the government a very strict review, and that’s what’s happened,” McDonald said, referring to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The tone of the court’s opinion in the Chula Vista case was “very government-friendly,” while the Tandon ruling was “very government-hostile,” McDonald said.

Professor Margaret M. Russell of the Santa Clara University School of Law said the county’s decision to settle was “pretty pragmatic.”

The county had already spent a lot of money on legal fees and was unlikely to win if the case got to the Supreme Court, she said.

“I believe that the county was correct on the law,” she said. “But as I learned in law school, my professor said, ‘What really matters is what the majority rules.’”

The $400,000 for the church’s legal fees will come out of the L.A. County Department of Public Health budget.

Of the $8,000 in fines the county has levied for violating the public health orders, Grace Community Church has paid $6,500. The remainder was forgiven as part of the settlement.

County attorneys were not available for comment. Attorneys for the church celebrated the settlement as a victory.

“Religious liberty and the Constitution won today against the overbroad, arbitrary, indeterminate, and clearly unconstitutional mandates from Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles County,” Jenna Ellis, who previously served as a senior legal advisor on President Trump’s campaign, said in a statement.

Charles LiMandri, another attorney for the church, said in a statement, “Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church refused to bow to government tyranny and they finally obtained the excellent result they deserved.”

Both attorneys represented the church through the Thomas More Society, a law firm that advocates on behalf of conservative causes, frequently defending antiabortion activists.

Thousands of maskless congregants gather weekly at Grace Community Church as Pastor John MacArthur ignores orders from a judge and public health officials.

Grace Community Church’s longtime leader, the Rev. John MacArthur, brought up the settlement from the pulpit on Sunday, noting that all the money from the county went to attorneys’ fees.

He then quibbled with media reports that the church had experienced multiple COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Obviously, many people contracted COVID. We understand that. It probably went through our church in maybe December or January,” MacArthur said. “That’s when I began to realize how many people were ill.”

MacArthur and his wife, Patricia, were among those who contracted the virus during that period, taking about two weeks to recover, he said.

In his opinion, the body’s immune system — along with faith — works better than a vaccine.

“It’s amazing to see the Lord protecting us,” he said.


Advertisement