Judge Tells CA County, 'This Is Not the Hill You Want to Die on' - They're Still Targeting Church with COVID Fines Anyway
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More than a year later, one California county continues to defy 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.
As CBN News has reported, 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 tried to close churches statewide in 2020.
Calvary Chapel and Pastor McClure 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.
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.
In February, Santa Clara County announced it would go forward with its lawsuit in an effort to collect the unpaid fines, KRON-TV reported. A Santa Clara County Superior Court even issued a ruling that allows the county to move forward with its lawsuit against the church and McClure.
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Judge To County Attorney: 'This Is Not The Hill You Want To Die On'
However, during a court hearing in March, a federal judge told a county attorney the effort to punish Calvary Chapel for defying the county's mask mandate may not be constitutional, according to Court House News.
This is not the hill you want to die on," U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman told Deputy Chief County Counsel Robin Wall during the hearing. "The U.S. Supreme Court has clarified the law over the past two years and I intend to abide by the law as described."
Freeman told Wall, "This litigation has mushroomed out of control," and urged both sides to settle through mediation.
The county attorney argued that the church's defiance of local mandates came when COVID-19 cases were at an all-time high in Santa Clara County and throughout the state. This claim was refuted by the church's attorney.
"The health statistics may be right, but if the underlying law you are relying upon is unconstitutional, then that's it," the judge told the county attorney, who also indicated that the church may have legitimate constitutional claims.
CBN News has learned attorneys for the church and the county met on May 17, but could not come to an agreement to settle the litigation.
"At the Judge's behest, we had a settlement conference on Tuesday. The case did not settle. So the next step is to depose Sara Cody and prepare a motion for summary judgment," attorney Mariah Gondeiro with the non-profit legal organization Advocates for Faith & Freedom said in an email to CBN News.
Dr. Sara Cody is the public health director of Santa Clara County. She instituted some of the most aggressive and restrictive responses to COVID-19 in the country and said she was the first to recommend lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, according to Court House News.
CBN News reached out to Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office for comment about the ongoing litigation.
In an email responding to our request, Assistant District Attorney David Angel said, "During the height of the pandemic, before there were vaccines or effective treatments, the Santa Clara County of Public Health Department created public health orders involving such preventative measures as masks, social distancing, and contact tracing. Virtually every individual, place of business, restaurant as well as churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues followed these rules to keep our neighbors safe. Sadly, one, in particular, did not."
"Despite being offered numerous opportunities to simply comply with the order, this group refused to follow even the most basic public health measures. Eventually, they were fined as would anyone else who refused to follow the law. They were given the opportunity to simply follow the same safety rules as everyone else and the fees would be waived. They refused. The Court has sided with the County over and over again and held the defendants in contempt over and over again. Nonetheless, we are still optimistic that we can resolve the matter which has been our hope all along. Still, when it comes to public health, no one can be above the law," Angel concluded.
Meanwhile, Calvary Chapel's pastor told CBN News in an email, he believes the county's continued pursuit to punish his church "is not about health, but principles."
"Anyone that believes in the First Amendment and our Constitution is under attack, especially in Silicon Valley. It's a place that says 'the Constitution doesn't apply here.' As they continue to live by that, we will continue to stand our ground for the sake of all that have gone before us and given their lives for the oath to uphold the Constitution," McClure wrote.
"We don't think of ourselves as defenders of the free world but that is what this body of believers in Jesus Christ are doing against our own government officials. This is not a war against elephants and donkeys, right against left, capitalism against communism, it's now down to the very issues of what life is about. Will we follow God or will we allow man to take His place? Will truth be overcome by lies?" the pastor continued.
McClure said the church's legal battle has now become "spiritual."
"It's become spiritual. This county promotes witchcraft, transgenderism, and every evil thing that destroys a nation while forbidding me to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Where are the Christians today? Where are our leaders of the 'free world'?" he asked.
"For those who are afraid of being labeled 'political' or racist, it's beyond that now. This is a question that each will need to answer that is asked by Jesus Christ, 'Are you for me or against me?' That is the battle we face now. Praise God that we have His promises and we can know that the gates of hell can not prevail against His church as we do all we can to stand ()," McClure concluded.
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