A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled this week that a San Jose church must pay Santa Clara County some $1.2 million after the church defied local and state COVID-19-related health orders in 2020.
Judge Evette Pennypacker ruled Wednesday that Calvary Chapel San Jose is liable to pay the fines and interest after the church held indoor services and other gatherings and did not require attendees to wear a face covering.
Calvary and the church’s senior pastor Mike McClure have argued that the county’s health orders at that time, which prohibited most indoor gatherings and required the use of a mask or other face covering when indoors, violated the church’s right to freely practice religious and worship activities.
Calvary officially began accruing fines in November 2020, when the county issued a Notice of Violation to the church that it had failed to comply with local indoor mask requirements as well as a county requirement that businesses submit a Social Distancing Protocol attesting that they were taking various COVID-related safety measures.
While the county originally sought to collect nearly $3 million in unpaid fines from the church, Pennypacker ruled that Calvary owes the county only roughly $1.2 million, including 10 percent interest, for failing to comply with the mask requirements between Nov. 9, 2020, when the Notice of Violation was issued, and June 21, 2021, when the county lifted its blanket indoor mask order.
“(Calvary’s) religious beliefs did not give them carte blanche to regularly violate face covering and SDP requirements that were neutral and generally applicable to all comparable, regulated entities in the county and otherwise enabled them to continue to conduct indoor religious worship as they desired,” Pennypacker said in the judgment.
After shuttering in March 2020 amid the early days of the pandemic, Calvary, with an indoor capacity of 600 people, reopened for religious services on May 31, 2020, without a capacity cap, which was required at that time for indoor activities.
Between May 31, 2020, and May 2021, Calvary held a pair of Sunday services with an average attendance of between 300 and 500 attendees, according to the judgment, as well as prayer gatherings and roughly 1,000 baptism ceremonies.
Officials with the church have argued that masks were available to attendees, but the church did not enforce their use or the practice of social distancing between groups of people.
According to the judgment, Calvary contends that the county has scant evidence that it held dozens of unmasked events between Nov. 9, 2020, and June 21, 2021, because county health officials did not inspect the church each day.
Calvary frequently live-streamed its services online, while McClure often directly referenced both a lack of masks among attendees and the church’s conflict with the county.
“I think about our government’s infringement on our liberties,” McClure said during a service on Jan. 10, 2021. “I think about this whole thing, COVID-19, it’s … it was all set up. We were played. This whole thing, it’s a lie. I mean, not that it’s not a disease. But they’re using it to take control and to stop you and I from worshipping God.”
Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams argued that the county’s public health orders and safety measures saved “thousands of lives” and helped keep the county’s death rate among the lowest in the country.
“Calvary’s arguments have been rejected at almost every turn,” Williams said in a statement. “We are gratified that the Court once again saw through Calvary’s unsupported claims and found them meritless.”
Calvary did not respond to a request for comment on the judgment.
“It is undisputed that the government interest in reducing the spread of COVID-19 is compelling, and requiring face coverings and an SDP were reasonable, unobtrusive means of addressing that indisputable compelling government interest,” Pennypacker said.