In win for First Amendment, CA Supreme Court rules church doesn’t owe legal fees to county after violating lockdown restrictions

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The following may include content which is editorial in nature and expresses the opinion of the writer, a retired Police Chief and current staff writer for Law Enforcement Today.

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CA- Chalk this up to a win for the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment. In of all places, the California Supreme Court ruled Santa Clara County officials cannot force a local church to pay $217,500 in court fees for violating Gov. Gavin Newsom’s draconian ongoing restrictions on church gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the Christian Post reports.

The East Bay Times reported that California’s high court last week denied a petition by Santa Clara County asking Calvary Chapel to pony up $217,500 in court fees.

Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastor, Mike McClure were each held in contempt and fined for violation of a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction when the church held in-person worship services in 2020 and 2021.

The restraining order was issued when Calvary Chapel ignored the county’s guidance and held in-person worship services despite the Oct. 13, 2020 guidance which limited indoor church gatherings to not more than 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever was less. Secular establishments, such as schools train stations, airports, medical facilities, malls and retail businesses, however, were exempt from the requirements.

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

In August, the 6th District Court of Appeals for California ruled in favor of Calvary Chapel, which reversed lower court decisions against the church. Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court decertified the appellate ruling, which means any future legal challengers will not be allowed to use it.

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

She continued, “I think we have a very religious-friendly Supreme Court. And we’re starting to see that trickle down across the country. When it comes to religious freedoms, they know where the Supreme Court stands.”

Meanwhile, Santa Clara’s Counsel James Williams called the California Supreme Court’s ruling a mixed bag.

“I’m certainly disappointed they didn’t review the petition,” he said. “but in ordering the decision to be de-published, it can no longer be cited. It will no longer affect the rule of law. I think the California Supreme Court sent that message.”

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In the August appellate decision, that court repeatedly cited United States Supreme Court rulings when justifying its reversal of the fines levied on Calvary Chapel.

For example, it cited the 2020 decision, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. In that case, the high court found the executive order issued by then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which limited attendance at houses of worship in areas with high levels of COVID-19 transmission was unconstitutional, noting that it allowed so-called “essential” businesses, which included “acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, [and] garages” to continue admitting as many people as they wished.

The Supreme Courts ruling noted that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” noting the worship restrictions served to “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

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

In writing the 36-page majority opinion, Presiding Justice Mary Greenwood wrote, in part:

“From these decisions, 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.”

In November 2020, 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.”

Only 600 people had been attending services in a space designed to hold 1,900 people, or just under a third of its capacity. Meanwhile the county had limited indoor gatherings to only 100 people at a time…because science.

At the time, McClure told his flock that the church “cares about the whole body. He said that he was not fording anyone who didn’t want to come to church in person, noting, “I don’t want to break the law but…I’m called to preach the gospel.”


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