A California Superior Court judge ordered a church to pay more than $1 million in fines for refusing to comply with COVID-19 mask mandates during the pandemic.
The church, Calvary Chapel San Jose, slammed the ruling and Santa Clara County’s efforts to defend the fines in court, arguing that not one case of COVID-19 has been traced back to the church’s worship services.
“There hasn’t been a single COVID-19 case traced to the church. To claim that this about public safety is just false,” Bob Tyler, president of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, which represents the church in court, told The Daily Signal in a statement Monday following the ruling Thursday. “In actuality, this is about the right of churchgoers to freely practice their faith without interfere or discrimination.”
“The church just wants to be afforded the same treatment and consideration as liquor stores, strip clubs, and other so-called ‘essential’ businesses,” Tyler added.
Judge Evette Pennypacker ruled that Santa Clara County’s masking and social distancing orders were lawful, and that the church had to pay $1.2 million in fines for violating them.
While the church had pointed out that some other institutions had received conditional and temporary exemptions for mask requirements, the court rejected the claim that these exemptions undermined the county’s authority to impose requirements on the church. A fire chief, for example, legally removed his mask to exercise in close proximity to his colleagues. By contrast, Calvary Chapel worshippers removed their masks for an entire service.
The judge ruled that the Christian church’s leaders “repeatedly announced their refusal to comply with masking requirements, never reported to the county that they had come into compliance with the masking requirement, and to this day maintain that they were never required to comply with that requirement at any time under any circumstances.”
“It should appear clear to all—regardless of religious affiliation—that wearing a mask while worshiping one’s god and communing with other congregants is a simple, unobtrusive, giving way to protect others while still exercising your right to religious freedom,” Pennypacker wrote. “Unfortunately, [church leaders] repeatedly refused to model, much less, enforce this gesture. Instead, they repeatedly flouted their refusal to comply with the public health orders and urged others to do so ‘who cares what the cost,’ including death.”
However, Pennypacker rejected further fines that the county had imposed, ruling that the extra fines amounted to “fining [Calvary Chapel] for the same violation twice.”
“The court was partially correct when it declared almost $2 million of the $3 million in fines to be unlawful,” Tyler told The Daily Signal. “The State Court’s legal analysis is simply flawed as to the remaining fines.”
He said the church plans to appeal the ruling and he expressed hope that “the court of appeal will ultimately correct the error by declaring all of the fines unconstitutional.”
“We are confident that the county’s mask order will be deemed unlawful just as the U.S. Supreme Court has twice previously held the county’s orders unconstitutional,” Tyler added.
In Gateway City Church v. Newsom, the Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction blocking California’s statewide ban on church services in COVID-19 hot spots, specifically in Santa Clara County. That ruling cited the court’s previous ruling in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, in which Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “the State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”
The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down COVID-19 mandates that infringed upon religious liberty, but it remains unclear if the court’s precedents will lead courts to strike down the Calvary Chapel fines.
In January 2022, the Supreme Court blocked a Biden administration rule requiring large businesses to force employees to take COVID-19 vaccines or wear masks and take COVID-19 tests. However, the court also upheld a vaccination mandate for health care workers at federally-funded health care facilities.
Critics have long contended that masks do not work. A recent Cochrane Review analysis found that there is no evidence that masking reduces the spread of a disease among an entire population. “There’s still no evidence that masks are effective during a pandemic,” said the lead author of the analysis, which assessed 78 studies on the issue.
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