Church of San Jose doesn’t have to pay fines for pandemic violations, appeals court says

Citing Supreme Court rulings on the rights of religious institutions to hold services during the pandemic, a California appeals court overturned $190,000 in fines against a San Jose church and its pastors for defying boundaries of the state and county on indoor public gatherings.

Santa Clara County, however, is still seeking $2.3 million in penalties against the church, Calvary Chapel San Jose, for refusing to require face masks and other sanitary precautions during services at the end of 2020. The county said these fines were not affected by the appeals court’s decision. decision.

“We will continue to hold Calvary accountable for endangering the health and safety of our community,” county officials said in a statement.

A Superior Court judge in December 2020 and again in February 2021 had found the church and its pastors, Mike McClure and Carson Atherley, guilty of contempt of court for violating state and local orders restricting attendance. indoor services at 100 people or 25% capacity, whichever is lower. The judge said the church, which seats up to 600 people, was disregarding restrictions on singing during indoor gatherings and rules requiring six feet of distance between congregants. The restrictions were aimed at limiting respiratory transmission of the deadly coronavirus.

The fines totaled $142,000 for the church and $48,000 for the pastors.

The United States Supreme Court had ruled in May 2020 that Governor Gavin Newsom’s limits on indoor worship services in California were justified by state health officials’ concerns about the spread of COVID-19. in nearby neighborhoods.

But after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and was quickly replaced by then-President Donald Trump’s appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, the court ruled 6-3 in February 2021 that Newsom’s ban on services interiors in counties hard hit by the pandemic violated freedom of religion because it treated places of worship more restrictively than retail businesses. The court was unmoved by state health witnesses who said indoor services posed a much higher risk of disease transmission than grocery stores.

“Once again, we appear to have a state playing favorites during a pandemic,” Judge Neil Gorsuch said at the time in the court’s lead opinion, one of several cases that have overturned service limits. religious.

On Monday, the California Court of Appeals for the Sixth District said the Supreme Court’s rulings required the contempt orders and fines against Calvary Chapel to be set aside.

Although the restrictions imposed on the Church of San Jose also applied to “indoor secular gatherings”, the court heard, the Supreme Court prohibited the limits of places of worship which are stricter than those of “any other type of indoor secular activity”, such as going to grocery stores or hair salons, even if these are not “gatherings”.

This means the county’s attendance limits “are not neutral” and fail to meet High Court standards, presiding judge Mary Greenwood said in the 3-0 ruling. She said the court did not have to decide whether the county also violated religious freedom by requiring face masks and six-foot distancing.

Santa Clara County said Tuesday it would continue to seek sanctions against Calvary Chapel for face masks and “numerous other public health requirements.”

Robert Tyler, an attorney for the church and its pastors, said the decision “is a great victory for the sake of liberty and shows vindication of the courage shown by this church and by pastors McClure and Atherley.”

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @BobEgelko

Jerry B. Hatch