San Jose’s Calvary Chapel gained notoriety for defying COVID-19 restrictions throughout the early pandemic, and the California Supreme Court just shot down $217,500 in fines the church had racked up. We can thank the religion-loving conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
We’ve had churches openly defying COVID-19 restrictions and holding gatherings during the worst of the pandemic here in San Francisco, with predictable outcomes. But no Bay Area church has been as defiant about ignoring restrictions as San Jose’s Calvary Chapel, which was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by Santa Clara County for continuing to hold large, unmasked gatherings (though the same church was happy to take more than $300,000 in PPP loans).
Those hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines eventually crept up to the neighborhood of $3 million. But Calvary Chapel won a legal victory in August, when California's Sixth District Court of Appeals overturned the fines against the church, based on the Trumper Supreme Court’s rulings regarding religious freedom over public health. Santa Clara County appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, but Bay Area News Group reports that on Wednesday, the California Supreme Court refused to reinstate the fines against the church.
“We understand the U.S. Supreme Court to hold that where a pandemic-related public health order prohibiting indoor gatherings has the effect of prohibiting indoor worship services, the order is not neutral and of general applicability if the public health order permits any other type of indoor secular activity, notwithstanding that secular indoor gatherings are also banned,” Presiding Justice Mary Greenwood wrote in the ruling, which the state Supreme Court just upheld.
The church argued that since airports, restaurants, and grocery stores were open, their church should have been able to hold gatherings too. Santa Clara County contended that the appeals court ruling had only applied to gatherings, and not the church’s many other violations, like ignoring mask-wearing restrictions. Indeed, a look at the Calvary Chapel Yelp photos shows large indoor gatherings where freaking no one is wearing masks, in photos dated January 2021, a time when the Bay Area was suffering record-high death tolls from the virus.
And Calvary Chapel is not completely in the clear, legally, on the remaining fines. According to the Chronicle, Santa Clara County “has said it will continue to seek $2.3 million in penalties against Calvary Chapel for not requiring face masks or taking other health precautions during services in late 2020.”
Image: Ryan H. via Yelp