John MacArthur, the Senior Pastor at Grace Community Church (GCC) in Sun Valley, California, is scheduled to be in court tomorrow to discuss his upcoming contempt charges and trial stemming from the church’s decision to defy a court order insisting they shut down indoor services in order to comply with Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 lockdown restriction.
Instead of submitting to the government’s will, the church deliberately continued to have church services, despite being ordered not to and disregarding a September 10 injunction. The County wants them to be found in contempt for flouting the injunction. The church argues that the injunction was granted on the faulty premise of an unconstitutional order, and should have rightly been ignored.
On September 24th, Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled against LA county for the fifth time. Rather than adjudicate the contempt charges, GCC lawyers argued that MacArthur and GCC were first entitled to a full-blown trial on the merits of their lawsuit challenging Gavin Newsom’s shutdown orders, proposing that “a final determination on the constitutionality of the orders must occur before the County could seek contempt against MacArthur for merely holding church.”
The judge was persuaded and agreed. Special Counsel Jenna Ellis explains in a statement from the Thomas More Society:
This is significant because no person can or should be held in contempt of a constitutionally invalid order. Los Angeles County continues to presume that its order is valid, with utter disregard for First Amendment protections. It’s tyranny to even suggest that a government action cannot be challenged and must be obeyed without question. This case goes to the heart of what our founders designed for the purpose of legitimate government—not to be above the rule of law. Pastor MacArthur is simply holding church, which is clearly his constitutionally protected right in this country.
It was a brilliant tactic. With LA’s Superior Court suspending civil trials the rest of the year, this decision effectively let GCC continue holding services for months without being bothered- at least until January 2021 at the earliest. Though it cost the church substantially in legal fees, it guaranteed them the freedom to have their services unimpeded.
The court date tomorrow then is to discuss the extent, scope, and merits of the trial. When it is scheduled to start. How long it will last. What it will cover, and who will be deposed.
One specific matter of contention is the deposition list. Lawyers for GCC are seeking the depositions of LA County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis and one of their supervisors, Sheila Kuehl. County lawyers argue that such information is not needed, preferring to only have the case assessed on the merits of the contempt of the injunction.
In their court papers, GCC lawyers want to ask Davis to “explain in detail why you have not sought a temporary restraining order against any political protesters or protest organizers,” and have him elaborate on why the church was seemingly singled out, and why Davis specifically sought an injunction rather than fines or citations. They state:
Plaintiffs have refused to produce Dr. Muntu Davis for a deposition, despite him being a named plaintiff and the signatory to a key declaration. By so doing, plaintiffs attempt to render themselves the finder of fact on the issue of contempt and to strip defendants of any ability to effectively defend themselves.
The same thing goes for Kuehl. The church’s attorneys want to ask about “any and all actions taken by the County of Los Angeles against Grace Community Church of the Valley, including evidence regarding the basis, motivation, and reasons for such actions.” The County lawyers, however, are supremely opposed to this, arguing:
Defendants’ attempt to kick the can down the road until after a trial on the merits should be rejected. The contempt proceeding should proceed now and should be limited to defendants’ challenges … as to whether this court exceeded its jurisdiction in issuing the preliminary injunction order, i.e., whether the order is void on its face.
As things happen behind the scenes, there has been no further comment from MacArthur about the trial since the 81-year-old pastor took a break from preaching duties on October 5th, following his long-standing habit of taking about a month off each year.
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