Judge orders CA church that ignored COVID restrictions to pay $1.2 million in fines
Calvary Chapel San Jose "flouted their refusal to comply" with mask mandates
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A Superior Court judge in California has levied a $1,228,700 fine against Calvary Chapel San Jose for refusing to obey local COVID precautions during the height of the pandemic, rejecting their argument that wearing face masks impeded their “religious freedom.”
Calvary Chapel made headlines in May of 2020 by hosting large indoor services, not requiring face masks, and not forcing people to socially distance. Even beyond that, Pastor Mike McClure openly bragged during live-streams about how the church was non-compliant with local regulations, saying, “God doesn’t want us to isolate ourselves. All of us need to be in the sanctuary. I don’t care what they say, I’m never again going to close the doors, ever.”
By the end of the month, the church was holding two services each Sunday, each with 300-500 participants. No one was required to wear a mask. In the months to follow, McClure repeatedly encouraged his congregation to avoid masks even if their health (not to mention the health of those around them) was at risk. He spread lies like, “You have a 99.99% chance of not dying if you catch the virus” and that the mask ordinance was an example of “religious persecution in America.”
When October of 2020 rolled around, however, the County of Santa Clara had taken whatever action it count to mitigate the threat of COVID, ordering people to wear face masks in “all indoor public spaces with limited exceptions.”
To the local government’s credit, they didn’t look the other way when it came to the church. They fined Calvary Chapel more than $350,000 for violating the local ordinance. The church never paid up, though, so the county filed a lawsuit and demanded the court shut the place down. The church wasn’t shut down, but the fines continued to accumulate. As it stands, between administrative fines, late fees, and actual violations, the church owed nearly $4,000,000 to the County.
This week, Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker issued a final decision on the matter. In short, she wrote that the County’s regulations were legal and generally applicable. They weren’t going after Christians and the exemptions they made were sensible ones. Furthermore, the ruling says, the church “unilaterally gave themselves a blanket exception for all of their activities at any time in any location, regardless of the number of attendees.” In other words, there’s no evidence that the local government treated secular activities comparable to church services any more favorably.
The judge also noted that the church’s maskless gatherings had consequences:
… It should appear clear to all—regardless of religious affiliation—that wearing a mask while worshiping one's god and communing with other congregants is a simple, unobtrusive, giving way to protect others while still exercising your right to religious freedom. Unfortunately, [the church] repeatedly refused to model, much less, enforce this gesture. Instead, they repeatedly flouted their refusal to comply with the Public Health Orders and urged others to do so "who cares what the cost", including death.
Finally, the judge said the church had no right to complain about the excessive costs when they could’ve prevented them entirely by just following the damn rules.
Some of the fines were eliminated but the ruling still orders Calvary Chapel to pay $1,228,700 to the County. Finally, money is flowing in the right direction. It’s a small price to pay, honestly, for the harm caused by these Christians’ ignorance and selfishness.
The County celebrated the decision in a press release:
“It’s the County’s job to take care of its residents and protect the public health. 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,” said County Counsel James R. Williams. “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.”
The church may fight the ruling by going to the Court of Appeals, but their arguments have been fully dismantled at this point. It’s not clear on what basis they think they still have a challenge.
The bottom line is that no one has a constitutional right to spread a deadly virus, and we shouldn’t have to wait for an outbreak to enforce that. The church was always free to livestream its services or hold in-person services that adhered to local restrictions. They didn’t want to play by the rules, though. They believed that being Christian gave them the right to break the rules and put people in danger.
On a side note, Calvary Chapel received over $340,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans from the government in 2020. That was money meant to pay employees while keeping them safely at home. Even though the church chose to open up anyway, putting employees and worshipers in harm’s way.
They had no problem taking money from the government when it helped their bank account. It’s only when the government fined them for breaking the rules for separate reasons that the church pretended to be persecuted.
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