During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments issued lockdown and other mandates that heavily impacted churches and their ability to meet to worship, while leaving similarly situated businesses free of such crowd restrictions. That is, until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and started ruling that such disparate treatment violated the First Amendment rights of religious entities.
Which is why it’s perplexing to report the continued attempt by Santa Clara County to impose and collect over $2.8 million in fines from Calvary Chapel, a church in San Jose, California, long after every other church dispute has been settled.
Calvary never closed its doors, earning it the ire of county health officials and millions of dollars in fines. But not a single case of COVID-19 has ever been traced to one of its worship services.
The county’s pursuit of its legal claims against Calvary Chapel is not going well.
“This is not a hill you want to die on,” U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman warned Santa Clara attorney Robin Wall at a hearing in March. “The U.S. Supreme Court has clarified the law over the past two years and I intend to abide by the law as described.”
The judge couldn’t have been much clearer than that. The county is not going to win. She then instructed the parties to meet to discuss a settlement of the case in lieu of the court having to make a ruling.
The parties just recently completed a mediation process with no result, CBN News reports. The case seems inevitably headed back to Judge Freeman, who will undoubtedly rule in favor of Calvary Chapel and against the county.
The county may be overconfident because of its legal successes in a California state court in a case it filed against Calvary Chapel in response to the church filing a lawsuit against the county in 2020 in federal court.
But in this legal fight over constitutional rights, the federal court is the bigger dog, and the county will eventually be forced to give up, and likely end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the church for its attorneys’ fees incurred in fighting the county.
Is the county’s attitude and legal posture attributable to religious hostility? The church’s pastor, Mike McClure sure seems to think so.
“Anyone that believes in the First Amendment and our Constitution is under attack, especially in Silicon Valley,” McClure told CBN News. “It’s a place that says ‘the Constitution doesn’t apply here.’ As they continue to live by that, we will continue to stand our ground for the sake of all that have gone before us and given their lives for the oath to uphold the Constitution.”
One important result of the COVID-19 lockdowns and the poor treatment of churches by some government entities across the nation has been the Supreme Court’s clear guidance that churches are not second-class citizens when it comes to constitutional rights.
Hopefully, one day in the not-too-distant future, Calvary Chapel will earn a vindication of its rights as well. But the church and its members will never get back the overwhelming amount of time and energy they spent, and turmoil they suffered having to defend themselves against the county’s bullying.
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