The state of California has already had to pay millions of dollars to churches for state and county governments’ assault on religious freedom as a result of their unconstitutional COVID-19 restrictions, yet one county government continues its attacks on Calvary Chapel San Jose.
Santa Clara County officials are continuing to press forward with its demand that Calvary Chapel pay $2.8 million in fines for violating its health orders — despite the fact that the Supreme Court has since ruled on five separate occasions that governments cannot treat churches more harshly than businesses or other gatherings — even during a public health emergency.
This unequal treatment was objectively practiced by Santa Clara County. In just one example, county officials encouraged mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, yet only allowed Calvary Chapel (and other churches) to have 100 attendees in their cars outside for worship services, or 25 attendees if they were outside of their cars. Churches were also required to take the personal information of all attendees and do contact tracing, something not required of the masses attending protests.
Any refusal to follow its COVID orders, the county stated, “constitutes an imminent threat and menace to public health, constitutes a public nuisance, and is punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.”
After courts such as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals initially refused to acknowledge Supreme Court decisions on the matter, the county contacted the church’s bank to collect fines without mentioning to the bank that the church was able to appeal or that the Supreme Court had already ruled that restrictions such as those on Calvary Chapel were unconstitutional.
The bank sent a notice of default before it was told about the case.
Even after the state of California agreed to settle with other churches, Santa Clara County sought financial information about Calvary Chapel San Jose, such as how much it “profited” during the pandemic. The county’s demand for fines defines the church as a “commercial entity” despite no documentation to back up its claims.
Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which represents Calvary Chapel, have filed a request with the Superior Court of California, asking it to fully dismiss Santa Clara County’s complaint, first filed in October 2020 and since amended, that claims the church’s worship services are a public nuisance and demands the church pay $2.8 million in fines. The attorneys released a statement, arguing,
“Since the County filed their original complaint on October 27, 2020, the Supreme Court has held the County’s and State’s restrictions on indoor gatherings unconstitutional. After almost a year of litigation and numerous depositions, the County has not linked even one COVID-19 case to the church’s indoor gatherings. Yet, the County has the gall to claim the church is a public nuisance and press the church for millions of dollars in fines.”
In a sane world, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, or the U.S. Department of Justice, would file suit against the county and make an example of them for such blatant religious discrimination and its clear disregard for religious freedom and the rule of law. This matter is closed — as the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated. No government is permitted to target churches with more burdensome regulations than are imposed on other organizations. Restrictions must also be the least restrictive means necessary.
Instead, Santa Clara County is engaging in a petty and unhinged revenge tour against Calvary Chapel. It has no evidence to back up its claims that the church caused a danger to the public or that the church is actually a commercial enterprise seeking to profit off of COVID-19. County officials should instead count their blessings that they — or, more accurately, the taxpayers that fund their shenanigans — are not yet being forced to pay a large settlement to local churches as has already been required in other parts of California.