While various California counties as well as the state government are paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle claims from churches they unconstitutionally attempted to shut down because of COVID-19, one county still hasn’t gotten the message.
In June 2020, Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastor, Mike McClure, sued Santa Clara County in an attempt to block the county’s ban on in-person worship and restrictions on outdoor worship related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The county persisted in its mandates even after the state began relaxing its own restrictions. The church complained that the county was applying stricter standards to churches than to businesses and other activities.
In October, the county sued the church, claiming it was a public health hazard and nuisance for holding worship services in violation of the county’s mandates. The fines it has assessed against the church now total $2.8 million.
In late November, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case from New York that state and local governments could not apply different rules to churches than were applied to similarly situated secular businesses and activities. In the following months, the high court applied the same reasoning to several cases involving California churches, resulting in large settlements in favor of several houses of worship. Even the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation’s most liberal circuit, was forced to apply the Supreme Court’s rulings to California in several federal court lawsuits.
But the Santa Clara case involving Calvary Chapel is in the state courts rather than the federal courts, which may explain the county’s inability to discern that it is likely on the losing end of its attempt to impose its will on the church. According to the church’s attorneys, the county justifies its actions by labeling the church a “commercial entity.”
Further bolstering the county’s misplaced confidence in the strength of its case, a state judge supported Santa Clara’s position in January 2021 by holding the church and its pastors in contempt of court for failing to obey the judge’s order to follow the county’s mandates.
“No matter where you stand politically on the COVID-19 issue, I think all Americans can agree it’s outrageous for Santa Clara County to seek $2.8 million dollars in fines against a church under the classification of a commercial entity,” Tony Black, a California attorney representing Calvary Chapel, said in a press release. “This is especially true when, over the last year, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held it was unconstitutional for the government to prohibit churches from holding worship services.”
The county also alleged that the church is a “public nuisance,” but after a year of pre-trial discovery proceedings, has yet to connect the church’s activities to a single case of COVID-19. The church, through its attorneys, has filed a motion to dismiss the county’s case against it.
Sooner or later, a California judge or appeals court is going to correctly identify that the First Amendment does protect the church from the county’s vendetta against it and dismiss the case. And instead of the church being on the hook for $2.8 million in fines imposed by the county, the county is going to end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the church for the attorneys’ fees it has incurred in defending its constitutional rights.
And the voters in Santa Clara County will ultimately get to decide if their elected representatives should be rewarded or penalized for their wasteful use of taxpayer dollars and hostility toward religious freedom.
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