Calvary Chapel in San Jose continues to spend a lot of time and energy fighting Santa Clara County in court over pandemic-era public health rules that it openly defied. And a Superior Court judge has just ordered the evangelical church to pay $1.2 million in fines to the county.
Last we heard, Calvary Chapel had won an appeal in the California Supreme Court, and got out of paying court fines stemming from this case totaling $217,500. But the county vowed to keep coming after the millions in fines it had directly assessed on the church for flouting masking and social-distancing orders for months on end between 2020 and 2021.
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker ordered the church to pay $1.2 million of those fines, siding with Santa Clara County. As the Mercury News reports, the church has vowed to appeal this decision too, and it may face a similar conservative panel at the state appeals court as the one that decided in its favor last August. In that decision, California's Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled that religious freedom trumped public health orders, basing that ruling on similar decisions by the current Supreme Court.
Judge Pennypacker's ruling pertains to the period between November 2020 and June 2021, and adds 10 percent interest to the fines assessed during that time.
"It’s the County’s job to take care of its residents and protect the public health," said County Counsel James Williams in a statement. "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. 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."
Calvary's attorney Mariah Gondeiro responded in a statement saying, "We look forward to establishing more precedent on appeal that will have far greater implications for the future."
In terms of that precedent thing, the California Supreme Court ordered that the appellate court ruling from August be decertified, or depublished, which means that it does not stand as legal precedent. Williams said at the time, in comments to the Mercury News, "I think the California Supreme Court sent that message."
Also, the appellate court ruling centered on capacity restrictions, noting that the county was not placing similar restrictions on grocery stores or other venues deemed "essential." Williams said he was confident that higher courts' decisions on these other cases would swing in the county's favor, because they do not hinge on capacity questions.
Calvary, meanwhile, has also sued the county in federal court, and that case is pending.
Early in the pandemic, multiple COVID outbreaks were linked to churches in California that flouted state public health guidelines. In the summer of 2020, after churches had reopened for in-person services in many parts of the country, church services were linked to hundreds of COVID cases and a number of deaths.