A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge has rejected a motion to dismiss the county's lawsuit seeking to collect nearly $3 million in fines levied against a San Jose church that defied local and state COVID-19-related health orders.
Judge Christopher Rudy issued a ruling Monday denying the motion, allowing the lawsuit against Calvary Chapel San Jose and the church's senior pastor Mike McClure to continue pre-trial discovery proceedings.
According to the county, Calvary owes more than $2.8 million in unpaid fines for violating county health orders that prohibited indoor gatherings and required people to wear face coverings when indoors.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was and remains an unprecedented challenge for our community, and it is critical that everyone do their part to comply with the public health orders and keep each other safe,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams, who jointly filed the lawsuit with District Attorney Jeff Rosen. “Calvary and its leadership were uniquely defiant in their refusal to do their part, and this lawsuit aims to hold them accountable for that failure,” Williams said.
Calvary Chapel and the county have been in dispute since the early days of the pandemic, when the county prohibited indoor gatherings or any kind from March through mid-October 2020, when the county allowed indoor gatherings of up to 100 people or 25 percent of a venue's capacity.
Calvary, with an indoor capacity of 600 people, resumed indoor services without a capacity cap in May 2020, according to the county, which began levying fines against the church that August after initially issuing a warning.
The county eventually filed a civil enforcement lawsuit against the church in November 2020 in an effort to collect the fines, the most it levied against any business or organization for COVID-related infractions since the pandemic began.
The church, meanwhile, has argued that the county's health orders restricting worship services violated the First Amendment's religious freedom protections.
In the fall of 2020, Calvary counter-sued Santa Clara County, the county's Board of Supervisors, county public health officer Dr. Sara Cody, state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan and Gov. Gavin Newsom in federal court over the capacity limits for worship services.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, subsequently granted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November 2020.
The church also continues to claim that it has never been the source of any COVID cases. As of Friday, Calvary has not paid any of the fines levied by the county.
“I am confident that we'll be able to show that the church did not contribute to any harm, but helped hundreds of people,” said Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney with Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which is representing McClure and Calvary Church.
Gondeiro argued that the county could not justify fining the church strictly on the basis of the risk of spreading the virus, and said the county should be required to prove that the church actively harmed its congregants by remaining open.
“If risk of contagion was the standard, then it would justify governments issuing exorbitant fines,” she said. “It's actual harm, and I believe that the county won't have a leg to stand on at trial.” Representatives for the church did not return a request for comment.
“We continue to remain grateful for the leadership of the vast majority of religious institutions and businesses in our community that prioritized the safety of our community and complied with all relevant public health orders,” Williams said.