Calvary Chapel in San Jose has scored a legal victory in its battle to fend off massive fines levied during the coronavirus pandemic. The Sixth District Court of Appeal has ruled that the church will not have to pay $217,000 in contempt-of-court fines for not following the county's COVID health orders in 2020. Santa Clara County Superior Court held Calvary Chapel in contempt of court for holding indoor services during the pandemic lockdown and flouting capacity limits. But, the appeals court ruled that the move by the county court was unconstitutional, based on several rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, which said that religious freedoms trumped local public health requirements.
The fines were from December 2020 and February 2021, when the church, which holds around 600 people, was told not they could not go beyond 25% capacity. The church continued to hold services with hundreds of people, many of whom were not wearing masks or social distancing. Crowds were also singing, which was also against the rules. “Calvary did not dispute the fact of its numerous and serious violations during the height of the pandemic and before vaccinations were available. We will continue to hold Calvary accountable for putting our community’s health and safety at risk,” the county said in a statement to NBC Bay Area.
The legal battles are far from over for Calvary Chapel. It is still facing the possibility of having to pay $2.87 million in health order fines to Santa Clara County — the county counsel believes those won't be overturned because they are not all about the capacity limits that the Supreme Court's decision centered on. The church has filed a federal suit claiming that the fines are also unconstitutional by way of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“This isn’t over. They’re gonna keep on keeping on. They’re not going to stop. I’m not paying attention to all of that. I serve God first,” Calvary Chapel pastor Mike McClure told the Mercury News. The church’s attorney believes the recent ruling will help Calvary in the bigger fight ahead. “It gives us a lot of momentum for our state and federal case,” lawyer Mariah Gondeiro told the Mercury News.
The ruling has garnered national attention from churches. "This is a significant victory for churches and pastors across this country. We are honored to represent pastors and churches who are willing to take the heat in defense of liberty because it benefits everyone," Attorney and President of Advocates for Faith & Freedom Robert Tyler said in a statement to CBN. Many people, including Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams, aren’t shocked by the ruling given the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court. Williams told the Mercury News that he was “not surprised by the ruling” but called it “disappointing.” He and the District Attorney could possibly challenge the appellate court ruling, which would then bring the case to the California Supreme Court.