For more than a year now, we’ve been talking about the COVID denial of Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in California.
This is the person who openly celebrated the lack of social distancing and face masks in his congregation, once telling a packed house, “the good news is you’re here, you’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks.” In August of 2020, he falsely claimed, “There is no pandemic.” And then, in October, there was an outbreak at his church. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health confirmed three cases had been traced back to the ministry. That number soon grew larger.
MacArthur denied the seriousness of this, basically writing off a small handful of positive tests in a congregation of thousands. By mid-November, whatever temporary restrictions the church had instituted were gone.
But by December, reporter Julie Roys spoke with a church leader who told her that multiple members of MacArthur’s staff had caught COVID. (MacArthur, not surprisingly, denied all of this.)
While all that was going on, the church was battling the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, which banned them from meeting indoors and demanded that they respect social distancing guidelines if they met outdoors. This, to MacArthur, amounted to Christian Persecution, and he sued. The county even submitted an article from Roys’ website about COVID infesting church leaders as evidence for why their demands need to be taken seriously, but in his response, MacArthur rejected all the dots that Roys connected. It was completely bonkers:
Grace Community Church regards the wearing of masks in worship first of all as a matter of conscience — and since we are forbidden by the teaching of Christ not to make extrabiblical religious rules that bind men’s consciences… we neither mandate nor forbid the wearing of masks in worship.
This rationale [for why people should wear masks] is pressed on people’s consciences regardless of whether it can be proved statistically that masks really safeguard anyone from the virus, and irrespective of the fact that masks can cause other medical problems. But COVID masks have become, in effect, secularism’s substitute for religious vestments. No one can reasonably deny that face coverings have become the chief symbol of popular culture’s sanctimonious devotion to the secular credo.
MacArthur’s argument was that face masks amounted to forced acceptance of a secular religion — which wasn’t true — because there was no evidence of them being useful — which was also not true. (There’s more than enough evidence pointing to masks being useful.)
He also said that the Bible required face-to-face worship, so making people wear masks at a crowded indoor church service — which was really the least they could do since they were all foolish enough to worship in person — would be unjust.
In the past few days, we’ve seen a couple major updates to this story that bear mentioning. The first is that we now know MacArthur himself caught COVID in December. He never announced that publicly because he was too busy downplaying the seriousness of the virus. And yet, on Sunday, he admitted that he and his wife had been infected.
Before his Aug. 29 sermon, MacArthur said that “many people contracted COVID… it probably went through our church in maybe December or January.” He also said his wife “Patricia and I enjoyed our own bout with COVID for about a week and a half” at the time.
Well, well, well…
But there’s some bad news too.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted this week to settle the lawsuit with MacArthur — knowing that the Supreme Court has already told California it can’t enforce a ban on indoor worship. Therefore fighting it in court would only be a waste of money.
That means they’ll shell out $400,000 to the church — with the state of California giving the church another $400,000.
“After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some public health safety measures could not apply to houses of worship, resolving this litigation is the responsible and appropriate thing to do,” read a statement from county officials. “From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Los Angeles County has been committed to protecting the health and safety of its residents. We are grateful to the county’s faith organizations for their continued partnership to keep their congregants and the entire community safe and protected from COVID-19.”
That last sentence wouldn’t apply to MacArthur, who’s done everything in his power to spread the virus by rejecting sensible precaution after sensible precaution. This settlement is a victory for faith-based negligence. Keep in mind, however, that it’s not really a victory for MacArthur on the merits; it’s a reminder that when the Supreme Court has a conservative super-majority that constantly allows religion to override legal precedent and common sense, the strategic move is often just cutting your losses while you can.
The end result is that a pastor who downplayed the risk of COVID and repeatedly put his own congregation at risk of the virus — and then caught the virus and kept it a secret because he knew how bad it would look — filed a lawsuit against the government that was trying to protect the citizens and relied on the right-wing bent of our legal system to claim victory.
What a mess.
The irony is that no one was ever preventing MacArthur from live-streaming his services. He chose not to do that because he wanted to hurt people in the name of Jesus. MacArthur’s followers still belong to a death cult even if they survived COVID, and their leader is a wildly ignorant, selfish person who doesn’t give a damn about the health or well-being of anyone else.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)