A California court has overturned $300,000 in fines against a church accused of non-compliance over COVID during the state’s pandemic shutdown.
Judge Peter Kirwan ruled in favor of Calvary Chapel San Jose in the 36-page ruling on Monday.
In October 2020, the plaintiffs, including the People of the State of California, the County of Santa Clara, and County Health Officer Sara Cody, alleged that Calvary Chapel had failed to comply with the state’s orders. The violations included failure to submit a plan for risk reduction and holding indoor religious services during 2020.
According to the ruling, a temporary restraining order was implemented in November 2020 that was later rescinded.
The congregation also made headlines for holding an indoor Christmas Eve service in 2020 in direct violation of county and state public health orders.
#HappeningNow: People are entering Calvary Chapel San Jose for an indoor Christmas Eve Candlelight Service that starts at 5pm — a direct violation of the county and state public health order. pic.twitter.com/84ubBKADHF
— Stephanie Sierra (@StephanieABC7) December 25, 2020
“I respect the judge and I respect what the law says,” Pastor Mike McClure said following a December hearing. “But there’s a bigger law. I have to get told, you follow God or you follow man. I have to follow what God’s word says.”
The case became a rallying point for Californians upset over the state’s government overreach during the pandemic. During the 2021 recall election against Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, Republican challenger Larry Elder held an event at the church’s location.
“A third of all small businesses in California are now gone forever because [Newsom] ignored science,” Elder said during the event, according to KTVU-TV.
Monday’s ruling reversed and annulled all three charges against the congregation, noting that the parties shall cover their own legal costs.
California Republican candidate for Senate Mark Meuser celebrated the ruling in a Twitter post.
“Today a CA Appeals court overturned over $300k in sanctions issued against Calvery [sic] Chapel San Jose for not shutting down during COVID,” he wrote. “The government could not shut them down because of 1st Amendment, so a judge could not sanction for refusing to obey the order.”
Today a CA Appeals court overturned over $300k in sanctions issued against Calvery Chapel San Jose for not shutting down during COVID.
The government could not shut them down because of 1st Amendment, so a judge could not sanction for refusing to obey the order.
— Mark Meuser for U.S. Senate (@MarkMeuser) August 16, 2022
Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which represented the case, said the church’s pastor was unfairly treated in the case.
“Pastor McClure is the poster child of COVID-19 abuse. Not only has Santa Clara County fined the church over 2.8 million dollars for violating arbitrary COVID-19 orders, but they have also sought to hold the church and McClure in contempt twice, and then sent threatening letters to the church’s bank. This is government abuse at its finest,” said Gondeiro.
The organization noted that Santa Clara County was “the first county to issue a shelter-in-place order,” and has implemented an aggressive fine system. The county sought $2.87 million in COVID fines from the church, even though the Supreme Court has admonished California five times and highlighted that the orders as applied to churches were in violation of the First Amendment.