California church's challenge of COVID-19 restrictions tossed by federal appeals court

Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose speaks to his congregation on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.
Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose speaks to his congregation on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. | Screenshot: Facebook

A federal appeals court panel has upheld a lower court decision rejecting a lawsuit by a California church suing a county for the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals released a brief ruling Tuesday in the case of Calvary Chapel San Jose v. County of Santa Clara et al.

The panel concluded unanimously that “the district court properly abstained” from the church’s lawsuit, given that a state case on the matter is still being adjudicated.

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“The County initiated the state proceedings before the district court considered the merits of this action, so the proceedings were ‘ongoing,’” the 9th Circuit panel states. 

“Moreover, state procedures presumptively provide an opportunity to present constitutional claims, and Calvary did not meet its burden to show that they are procedurally barred from presenting those claims.”

The panel also ruled that “Calvary’s requested relief would have the practical effect of enjoining the state proceedings” and that “there is not yet a final judgment, so we lack appellate jurisdiction to review the interlocutory dismissal of the retaliation claim.”

Calvary Chapel San Jose and other churches have filed complaints against Santa Clara County, arguing that local officials enacted unjustly strict lockdown measures during the pandemic.

These included orders that limited crowds at churches and restricted activities like singing and mandated face coverings, even after most of the rest of the state eased their measures, reported Courthouse News Service.

In March 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman ruled against Calvary Chapel, dismissing the lawsuit and issuing a stay on the church’s federal claims for relief.

“Calvary asks this Court to look to the current status of the federal proceeding, rather than the status when the state court case was filed, to determine whether any proceedings of substance of the merits have taken place. But the cases upon which Calvary relies do not support this standard,” wrote Freeman, an Obama appointee.

“Calvary has not demonstrated an irreparable injury that would justify this Court’s intervention. Calvary’s asserted irreparable injury appears to be that it will have to litigate in state court.”

The nonprofit law firm Advocates for Faith and Freedom, representing Calvary Chapel, denounced the district court ruling in a statement published by Courthouse News Service last year.

"It is shocking that the judge, after warning the county that 'this is not the hill you want to die on,' would punt this to the state court at the last second," stated attorney Mariah Gondeiro of AFF.

"Regardless of whether the judge is unwilling to address our constitutional claims, we still feel confident about our case in state court. We will still appeal the federal court’s decision because we believe she has a duty to address the federal constitutional claims."

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