California church doesn’t have to pay $217K in COVID fines: State high court

Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose speaks to his congregation on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, during an in-person service.
Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose speaks to his congregation on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, during an in-person service. | Screenshot: Facebook/Calvary Chapel

The California Supreme Court has restricted Santa Clara County officials from forcing Calvary Chapel to pay $217,500 in fines for violating Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ongoing restrictions on church worship gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

The state high court last week denied a petition by Santa Clara County asking that Calvary Chapel pay $217,500 in court fees, East Bay Times reported.

Calvary Chapel San Jose and Pastor Mike McClure were held in contempt and fined for violating a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction for holding in-person worship services in 2020 and 2021.

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The restraining order had been issued after the church gathered for worship despite the county's guidance on Oct. 13, 2020, limiting indoor church gatherings to no more than 25% capacity or 100 people. The guidance exempted secular establishments such as schools, train stations, airports, medical facilities, malls and retail businesses from the new requirements.

“We are pleased the California Supreme Court chose not to take up the matter,” Los Angeles Times quoted Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney representing Calvary Chapel, as saying.

In August, California’s 6th District Court of Appeal had ruled in favor of Calvary Chapel, reversing lower court decisions against the church. However, last week’s ruling at the California high court decertified the appellate ruling, which means future legal challengers will not be allowed to use it.

Gondeiro said, “We are very confident in a federal lawsuit where we seek to hold the county accountable for their unconstitutional public health orders.”

The August appellate decision repeatedly cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings when justifying the reversal of the fines imposed on Calvary Chapel.

It referenced the 2020 decision Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. The nation's high court found that an executive order from then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo limiting attendance at houses of worship in areas with high levels of coronavirus transmission was unconstitutional because it allowed "essential" businesses like "acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, [and] garages" to continue admitting as many people as they wished.

The Supreme Court stated that "even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten," characterizing the worship restrictions as a "strike at the very heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty."

The opinion also cited the April 2021 Supreme Court opinion in Tandon v. Newsom, in which the high court ruled against Santa Clara County's public health orders limiting attendance at private indoor gatherings to three households.

In November 2020, Pastor McClure told his congregation, “There are people who are accusing us that we are trying to kill people, that we don’t care about people. That’s the farthest thing from the truth.”

About 600 people had been attending services in a space that has the capacity to hold 1,900 people, while the county limited indoor gatherings to 100 people at the time.

The church, McClure said, “cares about the whole body.” The pastor said he was not forcing anyone to come to church in person. “I don’t want to break the law but … I’m called to preach the Gospel,” he explained.

Calvary Chapel’s lawyer Gondeiro told the gathering at the time, “Over the past five months, not one person has contracted COVID-19, they have contributed zero to the infection rate of this county.”

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