When California Gov. Gavin Newsom in July announced revamped restrictions on worship, churches statewide resisted, drawing the attention of pastors nationwide as they prepare for a renewed struggle over church closures.
Newsom’s restrictions require all churches to suspend singing during services and most to hold their churches outside. Citing already burdensome restrictions placed on them in the spring, many church leaders refused to comply, most notably John MacArthur, a celebrity pastor who declared in a Sunday sermon that “Christ, not Caesar, is head of the church.”
MacArthur’s sermon won widespread approval from many evangelicals. Greg Locke, a Tennessee pastor with a large social media following, in a video this week cited MacArthur to make clear to his congregation that he has no plans to close again if shutdowns return to the state.
“Churches should be open,” he said. “There should be no excuses. I will go to jail before I close my church.”
Locke added that his church, Global Vision Bible Church, which resisted previous pleas in March from Gov. Bill Lee to close, was not requiring social distancing or mask-wearing from any of its members.
Locke said in a statement that his decisions arose from a refusal to “live in constant fear and media hysteria.”
A series of churches in California sued Newsom after he banned indoor services. Others have outright ignored the orders, holding demonstrations to protest alleged attacks on religious liberty. Some counties, such as San Diego, have retaliated by promising to crack down on churches that violate Newsom’s orders.
The legal battle for churches’ ability to remain open has developed significantly since March, when nearly every state required churches to shut down or severely restrict the number of people at in-person services. The first few churches sued on the grounds that they should be allowed to hold drive-in services. The next round focused on in-person services. Several interventions from the Justice Department and President Trump emboldened churches in their cause.
Two churches, one in California and one in Nevada, appealed to the Supreme Court for an emergency injunction exempting them from restrictions. Both were rejected. A third church from Illinois plans to send its case to the court in early August. Religious liberty advocates expect a favorable outcome.
More recently, churches have cited a so-called double standard in the way that governors treat worship in the pews compared with how they treat protest in the streets. In New Jersey, the last state to remove coronavirus restrictions, three churches in a lawsuit accused Gov. Phil Murphy of favoring the cause of racial justice over that of religious exercise.
“This whole scheme is preposterous,” wrote Christopher Ferrara, the attorney for the churches. “America has never seen anything like it. Murphy is making up rules as he goes along. Meanwhile, almost no one in New Jersey is dying on account of the virus.”
Ferrara also criticized the governor for a mask mandate, which he said impeded the practice of worship.