Attorneys Appeal Decision To Fine Church $255,000 For Violating COVID Restrictions

After United States Supreme Court Sides With California Churches In Challenge To Ban On Indoor Services, Counsel For A San Jose Pastor Has Appealed To Federal Court To Nullify Ruling That Fined His Church $250,000 For Holding Indoor Services.

The Center Square [By Bethany Blankley]-

A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge found Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose in contempt of court for continuing to hold indoor church services in violation of a county health order.

The church has been holding indoor gatherings with an average attendance of roughly 700 people inside a space that holds 1,900. The county order limits indoor gatherings inside churches and religious organizations to 100 people. Santa Clara County officials asked the court to impose a temporary restraining order against the church to stop services altogether, citing a public health crisis.

At the same time, the county has reported that 519 people have died with or from the coronavirus, accounting for roughly 0.02 percent of the county’s 1.94 million population. According to county data, there are currently 444 coronavirus-related hospitalizations.

“Over the past five months, not one person has contracted COVID-19, they have contributed zero to the infection rate of this county,” Mariah Gondeiro, Calvary Chapel’s attorney, said. “The orders are unconstitutional because, as the Supreme Court affirmed, you can’t treat religious services differently than essential businesses.”

McClure was not arrested or jailed but he and his church were fined $255,000 for violating the county order.

Calvary Chapel San Jose is represented by Tyler & Bursch, LLP, which provides legal and financial support to the non-profit law firm Advocates for Faith & Freedom.

Advocates president and general counsel Robert Tyler argued before the judge that the Superior Court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the case and filed a motion with federal court. It’s also filed an appeal in the state court system. A hearing is scheduled in federal court Dec. 17 in which Tyler will ask the court to nullify the state court’s ruling.

McClure’s attorneys argue the judge’s ruling and county orders are unconstitutional and contradict a recent Supreme Court ruling against restrictions imposed against religious organizations in New York, and the court’s reversal of restrictions imposed on a church in California in a separate decision.

Last week, the Supreme Court granted cert for Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena and its statewide ministries and vacated lower court orders in response to the emergency petition filed by the church’s attorneys at Liberty Counsel.

The Supreme Court remanded the case for further consideration in light of its ruling against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order solely restricting religious organizations and houses of worship. In the New York ruling, the Supreme Court granted an injunction pending appeal for churches and synagogues.

The restrictions against houses of worship in California are more severe than those in New York, Liberty Counsel argues. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders ban all in-person worship for 99.1 percent of Californians, the nonprofit religious freedom organization states.

On Nov. 25, the U.S. Supreme Court granted injunctive relief to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, enjoining Cuomo from enforcing an executive order limiting capacity solely for religious organizations and houses of worship, pending appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Five months prior, U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from enforcing previous orders treating the Catholic priests and Jewish individual plaintiffs less favorably than non-religious entities.

But within months, Cuomo threatened to shut down New York churches and synagogues if they did not continue to limit religious gatherings to 50 percent of their indoor capacity, going against the district judge’s order issued in June. On Oct. 6, the governor issued a new policy called the “Cluster Action Initiative,” which shut down churches and synagogues located in newly created “Red Zones.” Religious schools were also completely shut down in both the “Red Zones” and in the newly designated “Orange Zones.”

In response to the priests and synagogues’ emergency appeal, the Supreme Court ruled, “Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services.

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the court held. “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch added, “It is time – past time – to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.”

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