Bay Area Church v. County, Million $$ Court Battle over COVID Penalties Heads to CA Supreme Court

By The Vanguard Staff

SAN JOSE, CA – Santa Clara County apparently won’t let a scofflaw church off easy, filing a motion with the California Supreme Court late last month, asking for a review of a decision by the Sixth District Court of Appeal that allowed a San Jose church to avoid paying about $270,000 in contempt of court fees.

Calvary Chapel—with about 3,000 congregants—apparently scoffed, according to court filings, at COVID-related public health mandates during some of the pandemic’s deadliest months.

As a result, the church is trying to avoid paying separate pandemic-related fines of nearly $3 million in a fight in both state and federal courts, according to news reports by the Bay Area News Group.

BANG wrote, “The lawsuits come as courts across the country are grappling with fundamental legal questions arising from the pandemic. Deeply important constitutional questions having to do with religious freedoms and just how far the government can go in asserting public health orders during a public health emergency are under jurists’ magnifying glasses in California and beyond.”

The court granted Santa Clara County a preliminary injunction against Calvary Chapel to stop holding indoor services where congregants were not wearing masks, not following social distancing orders and singing — all in violation of public health requirements at the time,” said BANG.

The church was then fined $217,500 for contempt for ignoring the ruling – twice.

The appeals court overturned the fines in August, citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2021 that favored religious freedoms over local health guidelines.

“The decision — made just weeks after Roe v. Wade was overturned — was part of a slate of cases that revealed the growing influence of the conservative-majority Supreme Court and the rightward turn it took after progressive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was replaced by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett,” said BANG in a recent story.

In its petition, the county argues the appeals court let Calvary Chapel “completely off the hook for the fines by interpreting just a single one of its violations, about capacity limits, as unconstitutional.”

The church allegedly violated multiple public health orders such as mask-wearing, the county argues, and therefore should still be held responsible for being in contempt of court.

The county, according to a BANG story, “asks the high court to clear up guidelines around how contempt-of-court cases and constitutionality are handled. Specifically, it is asking that the term ‘unconstitutional on its face’ — which was used in wiping away the contempt fines by the appellate court — be better defined.”

Whether the church pays the fines, the county argues, will “raise fundamental questions about the rule of law.”

“The stakes in this case are the highest conceivable,” the county’s petition reads. “The enjoined behaviors were life-threatening on a massive scale, and disobedience of the court’s orders represented a grave threat to the entire community.”

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said in an interview that he would be concerned if the appellate court decision were upheld because it would mean “that you can violate every single provision of an order, but if one provision is found to be problematic, you’re absolved of all the violations of all the other provisions,” he said. “Some of the issues that are in play in the Sixth District Court of Appeal are items where there is no developed state Supreme Court case law. Those questions really need resolution.”

The state Supreme Court has two months to decide whether to review the case.

BANG has reported that in March of 2021 alone, Santa Clara County fined 400 businesses nearly $5 million for violating its public health orders. The county is pursuing legal action now—one gym, penalized for more than $1 million, quietly settled for about a third of that amount.

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