SANTA CLARA COUNTY – The California Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Santa Clara County’s petition to reinstate more than $200,000 in contempt-of-court fines levied against a San Jose church for defying public health orders during the pandemic.
As a result, a Sixth District Court of Appeal ruling issued over the summer will stand. That ruling reversed the fines and annulled contempt of court orders issued in December 2020 and February 2021.
During the first year of the pandemic, the Santa Clara County Superior Court granted the county a preliminary injunction against Calvary Chapel to stop holding indoor services where congregants were not wearing masks, not following social distancing orders and singing – all in violation of public health requirements at the time.
Calvary Chapel – a non-denominational Christian church with 3,000 congregants – ignored the injunction and was found in contempt of court, eventually racking up $217,500 in fines.
In its unanimous Aug. 15 ruling, the appeals court cited a slate of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2021 that favored religious freedoms over local health guidelines.
“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,” Presiding Justice Mary Greenwood wrote in a 36-page opinion.
The order that Calvary Chapel was accused of violating did not apply to bus stations, airports, grocery stores, restaurants, office buildings and retail stores, the ruling said.
In its petition, the county argued that the appeals court let the church fully off the hook for the fines by interpreting just a single one of its violations, about capacity limits, as unconstitutional.
The church violated multiple public health orders such as mask-wearing, the county contended, and therefore should still have been held responsible for being in contempt of court.
Greenwood noted that the superior court did not impose “discrete fines” for any of the violations, writing in the opinion that it “instead imposed a single, aggregate punishment.”
The legal fight between the county and church began in the summer of 2020 when Calvary Chapel sued in federal court, claiming that local public health orders were violating its right to hold church services.
The county then sued the church in state court, arguing that Calvary Chapel had violated local public health orders and owed nearly $3 million in fines. The case is ongoing.
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