‘We are in a war’: California church must pay $1.2M in fines over draconian Covid restrictions

Thanks to an extraordinary ruling by a California judge, a church based out of Santa Clara County must now fork over $1.2 million in fines to the county for refusing to abide by the county’s draconian masking and social distancing orders.

The ruling comes after years of Calvary Chapel San Jose being fined for not abiding by the county’s strict COVID rules. Instead of taking the fines sitting down, the church sought to challenge the county’s COVID rules in court. But sadly for the church, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evette Pennypacker has ruled against them.

“It should appear clear to all — regardless of religious affiliation — that wearing a mask while worshiping one’s god and communing with other congregants is a simple, unobtrusive, giving way to protect others while still exercising your right to religious freedom,” Pennypacker’s ruling reads, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Unfortunately, Defendants repeatedly refused to model, much less, enforce this gesture. Instead, they repeatedly flouted their refusal to comply with the Public Health Orders and urged others to do so ‘who cares what the cost,’ including death,” it continues.

In her order, Pennypacker also slammed the church for arguing that county officials had been unable to pinpoint a single COVID case to the church.

“Defendants ignore, however, that they refused to report any cases, and the easy spread and difficulty of contact tracing was part of the reasoning for the generally applicable face covering and social distancing requirements to begin with,” the judge wrote.

The county was thrilled by the ruling, with County Counsel James Williams releasing a statement to The Mercury News celebrating it.

“It’s the County’s job to take care of its residents and protect the public health. The County’s response to the pandemic, including the Health Officer’s public health orders and enforcement against entities that refused to follow the law, saved thousands of lives and resulted in one of the lowest death rates of any community in the United States,” he said.

“Calvary’s arguments have been rejected at almost every turn. We are gratified that the Court once again saw through Calvary’s unsupported claims and found them meritless,” he added.

There is some good news and hope, though.

First, the church had originally faced $2.8 million in fines, meaning Pennypacker has basically cut the fines in half.

Second, the church plans to appeal the ruling, and judging by its previous legal victories, it may be in for an eventual win.

“In a separate case, a Santa Clara County judge twice held Calvary Chapel’s pastors Mike McClure and Carson Atherley in contempt of court for violating state and local orders to restrict attendance at indoor services. The rulings were in 2020 and 2021 and included $190,000 in fines for defying health regulations on attendance,” the Chronicle notes.

“But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February 2021 that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on indoor services violated freedom of religion because houses of worship were given stricter rules than stores were. An appeals court ordered the fines against Calvary Chapel’s pastors reversed in August. Then, in November, the California Supreme Court refused to reinstate the $190,000 penalty.”

This history presumably bodes very well for the church.

But there’s more possible good news. It was recently revealed through court documents that the county has been using “extraordinary surveillance measures” against the church, as reported by The Mercury News.

“In its ongoing legal battle with Calvary Chapel, Santa Clara County used mobile phone data to map concentrations of congregants gathering on the church’s Hillsdale Avenue grounds and conducted multiple stealthy inspections in late 2020 and early 2021 that experts say raise major civil liberties questions,” the paper reported in March.

“The use of third-party phone data — a technique known as ‘geofencing’ — and the numerous visits by enforcement officers reveal the lengths to which a county known for its strict COVID response was willing to go in order to prove that the church was breaking the rules,” the paper added.

“It is unconscionable how much time and money this county has spent surveilling and targeting this church when they should be focused on rebuilding the community,” Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney for the church, said at the time.

This bombshell revelation may be useful in a First Amendment case against the county.


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Vivek Saxena


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