'A David and Goliath Scenario': CA Church Still in Court After County Slapped Them with $2.8M in COVID Fines
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Santa Clara County, California is still defying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, targeting a San Jose church and its pastor with massive fines for holding church services in 2020 during the pandemic.
Calvary Chapel and its pastor Mike McClure are facing $2.8 million in fines for not shutting down the church's worship services and for allowing people to come to pray at their building in person after Gov. Gavin Newsom's ordered statewide church closures last year.
County officials are still demanding the church pay the fines arguing that it violated its health orders regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in five separate cases that the government cannot treat houses of worship as second-class institutions with harsh penalties and restrictions that exceed the restrictions placed on "essential" businesses.
The Legal Battle Continues
In June of 2020, McClure and Pastor Micaiah Irmler of Southridge Church of San Jose first sued Santa Clara County in a federal district court over its Stay-at-Home-Order issued in May, arguing the order "violates Plaintiffs' constitutional rights by banning indoor religious worship services."
Calvary Chapel and McClure later filed a federal lawsuit in October of 2020 against California and Santa Clara County challenging the constitutionality of the state and county government's COVID orders.
The county retaliated, suing the church later that same month for $2.8 million, claiming the church was a public health hazard and a nuisance for holding worship services in defiance of the county's COVID mandate. The county also classified the church as a commercial entity rather than a non-profit ministry.
In December of 2020, Calvary Chapel and McClure were found in contempt at a court hearing after ignoring a court order to stop holding indoor worship services.
McClure continued to hold church services while being fined thousands of dollars. He vowed to keep his church open after seeing members suffer from emotional and mental anguish due to the pandemic lockdown.
During McClure's hearing, a judge told him "science matters," before levying a fine of $2,500 for every day the church has held in-door services. The fines totaled about $55,000, according to KNTV.
Following the hearing, McClure addressed the media, indicating that no matter the fines or the restrictions placed on his congregation, they would continue to gather to worship God.
"I respect the judge and I respect what the law says," McClure said. "But there's a bigger law. I have to get told, you follow God or you follow man. I have to follow what God's word says."
U.S. Supreme Court Steps In
As CBN News reported last February, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Santa Clara County to allow indoor worship services amid a pending appeal over COVID restrictions.
According to a brief filed in the church's lawsuit against the county, "Starting in August 2020, the County Defendants repeatedly went after Plaintiffs for not following their arbitrary COVID-19 orders. They adopted restrictions on religious activities that went far beyond the State restrictions. They targeted Plaintiffs for not following their orders, suing them in state court for contempt and fining them more than $2.8 million."
"While millions of Californians regularly ignored the COVID orders—with some law enforcement officials refusing to enforce them—Plaintiffs (the church and pastor) were singled out for punishment and now face a crippling, multi-million dollar fine for exercising their constitutional right to worship," the brief continued.
The county later sued Calvary Chapel in late October of 2020, claiming the church was a public health hazard and a nuisance.
California Settles with Churches, One County Does Not
A few months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in May and June of 2021, the state began paying millions of dollars in settlements to several churches after discriminating against them with its pandemic closure orders. Several churches had sued the state for its COVID restrictions.
In late August, Calvary Chapel asked a California Superior Court to dismiss Santa Clara County's complaint against the church. The church argued the county has not presented any evidence that there's "no connecting element" or a "causative link" between the Defendants' church services and the transmission of even one COVID-19 case."
Attorneys working through the local offices of Tyler & Bursch, LLP, providing legal support through the non-profit legal organization, Advocates for Faith & Freedom (AFF), announced in October that a federal judge had allowed the church and McClure to add County Counsel James Williams to their federal lawsuit, bringing an additional cause of action against Williams for unlawful retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.
According to the church's attorneys, in December 2020 and January 2021, Williams sent threatening letters to Calvary's lender, informing the bank the church had been held in contempt and fined over $1 million.
The church's bank then sent a Notice of Default for noncompliance with governmental regulations and nonpayment of fines and only withdrew the default notice after it learned the church was contesting the fines (information that had been omitted in Williams' letters).
"There was no legitimate basis for Williams to send the letters. He sent the letters to put pressure on Pastor McClure and Calvary to drop their lawsuit, pay the fines, and comply with the COVID-19 orders," a Tyler & Bursch press release said.
'A David and Goliath Scenario'
Bob Tyler, the founder of AFF, told Calvary Chapel Magazine that even though the state of California has paid and settled church cases, "The county won't let it go even though it's in their best interests to let go and move on."
Tyler also said he thinks the case could stretch on for months or even two more years.
CBN News contacted Mariah Gondeiro, one of the church's attorneys with Tyler & Bursch, to get an update on the case.
In an email to CBN News, Gondeiro said the case is still in the "discovery" phase, calling it a "David and Goliath scenario."
"This is truly a David and Goliath scenario. The county and state may have unlimited resources, but we have God on our side. I cannot fathom him being too pleased with how the state and county have treated his children," she said.
CBN News also contacted Santa Clara County for comment. We have not received a response from county officials but will update this story when we do.
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