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Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evette Pennypacker ordered Calvary Chapel San Jose to pay $1.2 million in fines for violating Santa Clara County’s masking requirements.
The county had sought close to $3 million in fines after the church refused to keep closed, violated capacity limitations, and social distancing restrictions. Pennypacker ruled that the church has to pay the fines for not enforcing the county’s mask mandate with 10 percent interest. Pennypacker wrote:
“It should appear clear to all — regardless of religious affiliation — that wearing a mask while worshiping one’s god and communing with other congregants is a simple, unobtrusive, giving way to protect others while still exercising your right to religious freedom. Unfortunately, Defendants repeatedly refused to model, much less, enforce this gesture. Instead, they repeatedly flouted their refusal to comply with the Public Health Orders and urged others to do so ‘who cares what the cost,’ including death.”
Mariah Gondeiro, legal counsel and vice president of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, which represents Calvary Chapel San Jose, said that the church will appeal the ruling, She explained:
“We believe Judge Pennypacker’s decision to enforce $1.2 million in fines violates the United States Constitution. We have already prevailed twice on appeal in this case, and we believe we will successfully overturn these illegal fines.”
The county first began fining Calvary Chapel in 2020 after the church started holding services in violation of the county’s shelter-in-place order, which required citizens to stay at home except for certain activities deemed necessary. For the first two months of the COVID crisis, Calvary Chapel obeyed the order, but the effects on the congregation were severe. Members were experiencing depression, anxiety, and other problems after being unable to meet with others and worship. The church’s pastor, Mike McClure, stated on May 24, 2020, that Calvary Chapel would reopen and would not shut its doors again and would not limit the number of congregants allowed in for church services.
On May 31, the church reopened. The conflict between the church and the county led to lawsuits filed by each. As part of those lawsuits, court documents allegedly show that the county was surveilling Calvary Chapel, both by having county officials stake out the church and by using geofencing to determine how many people were in each building. County officials went to the church or a nearby property no less than 44 times between August 2020 and January 2021 to observe people going to church.
Substack journalist David Zweig was the first to report on the county’s efforts to spy on the church, noting that county officials even monitored gatherings such as prayer meetings and youth events by watching through a window so as not to be detected.
Zweig also reported on the county health department’s use of location data to see how many people were in the church. The county used data from SafeGraph, a company that “aggregates information from 47 million mobile devices across the United States,” to conduct analysis showing that Calvary Chapel gatherings were uniquely large.
Santa Clara County hired Stanford law professor Daniel Ho to analyze the data. Santa Clara denies that it used the data to track attendees. “To be clear, the county did not use cellphone surveillance to track anyone at Calvary Chapel during the pandemic. The article cites an after-the-fact analysis of third-party, commercially available aggregate data, done for litigation purposes in order to respond to Calvary’s own allegations in a lawsuit that Calvary itself filed,” the county stated.
Gondeiro responding by stating, “It is unconscionable how much time and money this county has spent surveilling and targeting this church when they should be focused on rebuilding the community.”
The county paid its inspectors $219 an hour for each of the 44 visits to Calvary Chapel and paid Ho $800 an hour for his work analyzing the data.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of churches multiple times in late 2020 and early 2021 regarding COVID limitations, including against Santa Clara County. Its first ruling on the matter in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo in November 2020 was used as precedent by the Supreme Court four additional times to rule against California mandates that limited church attendance and interfered with religious liberty.
The Court ruled that Santa Clara County must allow churches to resume services in February 2021. The Court also ruled that the government could not discriminate by putting more limits on churches than secular businesses, but county officials have argued that their restrictions enacted the same mandates on both churches and businesses.
“The Supreme Court order was issued without any analysis at all of the County’s gathering rules, which have always been neutral and applied equally to all gatherings across-the-board,” Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said at the time. “Indoor gatherings of all kinds remain very risky, and we continue to urge all religious institutions to carefully follow the public health recommendations to avoid spread of COVID-19 among their congregations and the broader community.”
With regard to Judge Pennypacker’s ruling, Robert Tyler, president of Advocates for Faith and Freedom, indicated that the church’s appellate effort will likely add to existing precedent, saying,
“This case will not likely end until the U.S. Supreme Court rebukes Santa Clara County again. The opinion is very deficient in its analysis and provides for an excellent appeal.”
Calvary Chapel did the right things by re-opening and caring for the needs of their congregation and others. In Zweig’s report, he included stories of church members who talked about how difficult being forced to stay at home was for them. During COVID, Calvary Chapel’s attendance skyrocketed, likely in large part because so many needed spiritual direction and human contact during the lockdown, even as many churches remained closed.
The surveillance and persecution of Calvary Chapel by a county health department sounds more like wannabe Elliot Nesses trying to take down Al Capone or like the Chinese Communist government spying on its citizens — not an elected American county government that must adhere to the Constitution. This overreach and violation of religious liberty is unacceptable.
Pennypacker’s ruling seems to forget that masks have been shown to be ineffective. A government order to force everyone to wear masks makes little sense when research has repeatedly shown that masks do not stop the spread of COVID.
Calvary Chapel should be proud of re-opening and honoring God’s command in Hebrews 10:23-25 to never forsake gathering and fellowshipping together:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
For a more comprehensive biblical worldview on this topic, please check out “Christian Love and COVID Conformity,” a white paper written by theologian and Christian ethicist Dr. Tim Yonts for our Theology in Politics series.
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.