31 August 2021

California's "Indefinite" Lockdown vs. the Free Exercise of Religion

by Phil Johnson

Note (31 Aug 2021):I wrote this post last year to answer some evangelical critics who insisted that our church could easily follow all government-mandated shutdown protocols without sacrificing our freedoms or compromising our worship. Almost as soon as I posted it, the attorneys handling the church's court case asked us to refrain from discussing the case online—to make sure the legal argument they were making did not get clouded by a social-media debate. So I removed the post. Now that the legal case has been settled, here is that information. Internal links will take you to documentation that proves what an impossible burden the government-mandated restrictions imposed on the church.

(This is kind of long. Pack a lunch.)

For the past eight weeks or longer, Sunday morning worship services at Grace Community Church have been open to anyone who wants to attend. John MacArthur and the elders made that fact as public as possible in a statement they issued on July 24, saying they would continue to have normal worship services despite a July 13 edict from the California Governor ordering churches to close again after a brief respite from the original quarantine.
     The most common question sent to me about the elders' position is, "Why not just avoid conflict with the government by downsizing your congregation, meeting outdoors, and following the simple masks-and-social-distancing guidelines?" For those who have ears to hear, the elders' statement itself gives a carefully reasoned answer to that question.
     I've explained how and why my own thinking changed on the relative weight of Romans 13:2 vs. Acts 5:29 as those texts apply to the church's current circumstances. I've also answered a number of honest questions about the elders' statement here on the blog. But there is a small group of ill-tempered cyberhecklers who endlessly Tweet and retweet variations of the same protestation: "Why not just comply with the government's guidelines? You could easily do that if you were willing to have your worship services outdoors with masks and social distancing." For readers who still aren't sure of our answers to that question, this blogpost is a compendium of my replies.

A  few splenetic people (the kind who put the "Twit" in Twitter) have been relentlessly posting shrill criticisms of Grace Church's decision to stay open for congregational worship in spite of the California Governor's edicts ordering church doors closed. All the criticisms we get echo the same basic claims—namely, that the shutdown hasn't resulted in any actual "persecution" of churches, just inconvenience; that the Governor's orders don't really "target" churches, because they apply to sporting events and concerts as well; and that Grace Church would be perfectly free to meet and worship as a congregation if the elders would simply enforce the experts' guidelines for social distancing and keep everyone outdoors.

Some typical examples:

Here's a guy, for example, who Tweets, "The Church is free 2 meet in California. Not restricted. Truth matters." That Tweet was accompanied by more than 75 additional Tweets from the same Twitter account in 48 hours' time, all sharply critical of Grace Church's elders' decision.

Another person likewise insists that "churches are free to meet in California, provided they comply with social distancing rules re: masking and not singing. . . Those are facts."

There is also a persistent stream of people who want to dispute whether there's any element of persecution in the constraints California officials have placed on worship.

More noisome foes of the elders' position have gone even further, challenging the fundamental integrity of John MacArthur and the elders, or imputing evil motives to them for wanting the church to meet. Some of our critics have seized the opportunity to vent accusations of greed, racism, pride—or whatever nasty bitterness they might have stored up in their hearts.

I'm not surprised that we would get criticism. But I am somewhat surprised that the most angry, ill-tempered, accusatory—even imprecatory— remarks have come from within the evangelical community.

Some preliminary comments

So before I deal with the central question, let me clarify some facts the critics tend to misconstrue.

First, the elders' statement gave a clear and simple reason why the church is continuing to meet—namely, that the State has no legitimate authority to determine what churches teach or how they worship. The document's key sentence is italicized for emphasis on page 1: "God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church." Christ is the Lord of the church, and he mediates his rule in the church through duly qualified elders. Open-ended executive orders from State officials dictating how, when, or whether the church can meet for worship overstep the bounds of Caesar's authority.

That is the whole argument we are making. It doesn't hinge on the question of whether the government's restrictions qualify as "persecution" or not. Our protest is not because we think there's something sacrosanct about the church building. We have not refused to hold services outdoors. We erected the largest tent available in the church parking lot, and it has been filled with worshipers every Sunday morning. Our refusal to limit attendance is not driven by any of the crass motives some pathologically cynical critics have ascribed to Grace's elders.

Second, the elders of Grace Church would not flippantly or injudiciously defy a legitimate government-imposed quarantine if it were clear that a deadly pestilence posed a real and present threat to life and well-being in our community. By "legitimate," I mean a quarantine with 1) a well-defined, quantifiable objective; 2) trustworthy monitoring and honest reporting from qualified health officials; and 3) well-considered restrictions that are impartially enforced in every public gathering. In other words, every event that draws a crowd, including political protests, would have to be treated even-handedly.

Not one of those conditions is being met in the current shutdown.


  1. The stated goal when the quarantine was announced in March was "15 days to flatten the curve." It quickly morphed into a months-long stay-at-home order. Here in California, that phase, in turn, became an "indefinite" lockdown that now threatens to keep schools, businesses, and churches closed through the Fall season and beyond. Given the early cancellation of the Rose Parade on New Year's Day, there's little doubt our political overlords have every intention of not allowing life to return to normal for the remainder of the calendar year—if ever.
  2. The "science" behind the predictions that started the pandemic panic turned out to be false and absurdly fluid. The model that originally motivated so many world leaders to shut down their economies and put their people under quarantine was grossly wrong in virtually every prediction it made. Most experts admit that the data being reported on the spread of the virus even now is untrustworthy. The majority of them signed a letter in support of the "Black Lives Matter" mass protests, saying "we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission." The nation's top infectious disease expert has admitted to lying to the American public about the effectiveness of masks. California's top public health official quit this week because the computer system used to gather statistics was hopelessly faulty. There is no rational reason to trust the fear-mongering spin that politicians and the media continue to put on coronavirus statistics.
  3. When large crowds of angry protestors are permitted free reign to gather in the streets and spawn riotous behavior (often with support and encouragement from the same government officials who say they intend to keep lockdown restrictions in place indefinitely), that's not a legitimate quarantine.

Third, for context, remember that the State of California and others have consistently categorized churches as non-essential while keeping liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, casinos, and abortion clinics open for business as usual. Perhaps no institution is more vital during a time of fear and uncertainty than a church where the gospel is preached. We wouldn't necessarily expect an increasingly secular government to recognize or celebrate that fact, but we do expect American officials to safeguard our unalienable, God-given rights to freedom of worship and assembly. They are sworn to uphold the U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The fact that they have not done so is perhaps the most telling sign that religious liberty in the United States is indeed being threatened.

Fourth, I might also mention the fact that hardened felons are being released from prison lest they risk being infected with COVID-19. Recidivism in the wake of that experiment has already exacted a costly toll. It is also well known that political demonstrations have been held in various places around Southern California every day since June, and no legal pressure has been put on participants to abide by social-distancing guidelines. In fact, some of the same experts and officials who insist severe restrictions are absolutely necessary for the rest of us have winked at or encouraged the protests. Meanwhile, pastors holding regular worship services are routinely hectored by public officials and threatened with legal action.

Back to the original question:

Here's my reply to those who wonder why we don't simply accept the restrictions and alter our worship services accordingly in order to comply as much as possible with the quarantine restrictions.

The list that follows is taken from official guidelines that have been issued for places of worship in California. You'll find those documents linked below. (If you can't find where a specific bullet point can be documented, email me or comment below, and I'll give you specifics. I didn't want to clutter this list with references.) So here is a short list of just some of the things that our Governor's edict and the State of California's current guidelines would require of us:


  • All "indoor operations" must close and remain closed indefinitely.
  • Congregants must pre-register in order to come on campus. They are not permitted on campus at all except during scheduled events.
  • Attendees must be screened for symptoms and have their temperature taken as they come onto campus.
  • Everyone at all times must remain at least 6 feet away from anyone else who is not a household member. (That applies to the tent, the parking lot, restrooms, and the open areas of our campus.)
  • Maximum occupancy of the tent is therefore determined by how many people can stand or sit inside the tent with a six-foot radius around each family group, with extra space allocated for aisles. We have the largest available tent that will fit in our parking lot. (The tent is 20,000 sq. ft.) At most, it can hold 350-400 people with social distancing. That's not even a tenth of our congregation.
  • Attendees must therefore be counted as they come onto campus, and once the maximum occupancy of the tent is reached (400 people), anyone else who comes must be turned away.
  • Every other parking space must be closed in order to maintain social distancing even in the parking lots.
  • There must be marked, designated pathways from the parking lots to the tent. Staff members must be positioned along those pathways to remind people to maintain social distancing and stay masked at all times.
  • Everyone who attends must wear a mask at all times, and anyone who comes within six feet of a maskless non-household member should self-quarantine for two weeks.
  • Children are required to stay with their parents at all times and not intrude on the six-foot radius of non-household members. "Children should remain in the care of those in their household unit and not interact with children of other parties at any time while visiting facilities. [The church must] close play areas and discontinue activities and services for children where physical distancing of at least six feet cannot be maintained."
  • Restrooms must be guarded by a monitor—a staff member tasked with making sure the six-foot rule isn't violated and that everyone who enters stays masked. (If those standards are strictly followed, most of our restrooms will accommodate only one person at a time.)
  • Tape must be laid out on the ground outside the restroom to indicate where people in the queue should stand in order to maintain social distancing.
  • Congregants should be encouraged to use the restroom during the service to minimize the rush before and after the service.
  • Hand sanitizer must be provided at places around the campus. (We do that already.) In addition, all surfaces in high traffic areas must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected throughout the day. That includes "lobbies, halls, chapels, meeting rooms, offices, libraries, and study areas and areas of ingress and egress including stairways, stairwells, handrails, and elevator controls. . . . [also] doorknobs, toilets, handwashing facilities, pulpits and podiums, donation boxes or plates, altars, and pews and seating areas."
  • Hymnbooks, seat cushions, offering plates, communion trays, and any other shared items are not to be used at all.
  • If there is more than one service, disposable seat covers must be provided and changed between services.
  • Signs must be posted at all entrances reminding people to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and go home if they are sick. Additional signs must be posted around the campus forbidding hugs and handshakes. And still more signs must be placed in the restrooms reminding people to wash their hands frequently and with soap—for at least 20 seconds each time.
  • A list of all rules governing behavior for attendees must be posted on social media so that people can be informed of these restrictions before they come for worship.
  • Church services must be "shortened to limit time spent at the site." (The guidelines aren't specific about the amount of time that must be shaved from our services.)
  • The entire campus must be closed to the public when the service ends.
  • If three people from the church test positive for COVID-19, church staff must report that to the Department of Health. The State will then send a representative to come and give us additional instructions on how to respond.

To that guy who Tweeted that churches in California are "free 2 meet . . . Not Restricted"—and then had the chutzpah to add, "Truth matters," my answer is that I don't believe truth really matters very much at all to someone who is as militantly determined as he is to perpetuate that false narrative.

To that guy who Tweeted that churches in California are "free 2 meet . . . Not Restricted"—and then had the chutzpah to add, "Truth matters," my answer is that I don't believe truth really matters very much at all to someone who is as militantly determined as he is to perpetuate that false narrative.

To those who have had questions of conscience regarding the position our church has taken, I hope this information is helpful.

Professing Christians who bow to tyranny under these circumstances are setting a bad precedent. It will be very hard for them to justify the position the Apostles took in Acts 5:29 when they finally realize that is what they need to do.

And finally, for anyone seeking my sources, here are some of the documents issued by various government agencies listing restrictions for places of worship in California:

No end to these draconian restrictions is anywhere in sight. The Governor says, "These closures shall remain in effect until I determine it is appropriate to modify the order."

We answer: "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge" (Acts 4:19). God's Word says, "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

"We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

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