The new conservative-majority Supreme Court, and in particular Catholic activist Justice Samuel Alito and Christian cult member Amy Coney Barrett, are partial to religious freedoms. And because of this, a California appeals court has just overturned a lower court's decision over a San Jose church's defiance of COVID-19-related public health orders two years ago.
The evangelical Calvary Chapel in San Jose made headlines in late 2020 when they decided to seek legal action against the state and county rather than comply with Santa Clara County health orders that mandated that church services be kept to 25% capacity, with parishioners masked and distanced. As Hoodline reported at the time, the church had been holding regular indoor services without heeding capacity rules since at least May 2020, and its pastors were openly denying the dangers of COVID at a time before vaccines were even available. The church made unsubstantiated claims that despite holding indoor services for hundreds throughout the year, none of its parishioners had been infected with the virus.
Santa Clara County leveled multiple fines against Calvary chapel for its violations, which by November 2020 totaled $350,000.
The public health penalties owed now total $2.87 million, and the church and its pastors, Mike McClure and Carson Atherley were further fined $217,500 for contempt of court for their ongoing defiance of capacity restrictions in December 2020 and February 2021. That latter fine has now been overturned, as Bay Area News Group reports, with California's Sixth District Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the church.
The appeals court ruled that the county's capacity restrictions on religious services were "not neutral." And citing a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, the three-judge panel wrote in their opinion that even if capacity rules applied equally to "indoor secular gatherings," the rules did not apply the same way "to any other type of indoor secular activity," like grocery shopping.
The Supreme Court ruled multiple times last year, after the arrival of Justice Barrett, against states and in favor of religious groups when it comes to the freedom to worship during a public health emergency. The conservative justices were fervent in their about-face, reversing decisions made by the high court just a year earlier that deferred to states and their public health experts — with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the first of these opinions in February 2021 in a case based in California. As the Chronicle reported at the time, Gorsuch called it a case of "a state playing favorites" and discriminating against religion — and one example he cited was that singing and chanting were banned in religious spaces but singing was allowed in movie studios if the performers had all been COVID-tested.
The high court ruled against California again in April 2021, regarding pandemic capacity restrictions on home gatherings for religious worship.
In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority "once more commands California to ignore its own experts' scientific findings, thus impairing the state's effort to address a public health emergency."
In an ironic sidenote to this story, Calvary Chapel pulled in $340,000 in PPP loans from the federal government during the pandemic, despite apparently not curtailing its ministry business. And when asked if he thought it was contradictory that his church should be doing battle, legally, with the government while accepting government money, McClure told NBC Bay Area, "I’m not fighting against anybody. I want to help the government. I'm a chaplain... You're making me out to look like I'm crazy."
Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams tells Bay Area News Group that he was "not surprised" by the appeals court ruling, but still he found it "disappointing." His office is now trying to decide whether to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.
Still, Williams said, this ruling only pertains to the flouting of capacity limits, and the "vast majority" of the fines leveled against Calvary Chapel relate to other public health violations — and the county still plans to pursue getting those fines paid.
"Calvary did not dispute the fact of its numerous and serious violations during the height of the pandemic and before vaccinations were available," the county said in a statement. "We will continue to hold Calvary accountable for putting our community’s health and safety at risk."
Speaking to Bay Area News Group, Pastor McClure said, "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."
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