Santa Clara County sues San Jose church for coronavirus violations

An exterior view of Calvary Chapel in San Jose.
Calvary Chapel in San Jose.
(Google Maps)

Officials in Santa Clara County are pursuing legal action against a San Jose-based church accused of violating public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to court documents filed jointly by the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office and county counsel, Calvary Chapel has been hosting weekly indoor church services for as many as 600 people, who often stand in close proximity to one another without wearing masks or face coverings.

County officials said they spent months trying to get the church to comply with current public health orders — which limit indoor gatherings for religious or other purposes to 100 people — by offering detailed explanations of the risk and presenting safe alternatives such as drive-in religious services, all to little avail.


“The vast majority of religious institutions within the county have continued to practice their faith while also complying with state and county public health orders to protect the health of their congregants and the entire community, and especially the sick, elderly, and vulnerable,” the complaint says, adding that the church “refused to utilize these options.”

Three cases have been confirmed at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, which had defied orders from Los Angeles County public health officials and a judge to stop holding indoor services.

The lawsuit names both Cavalry Chapel and its senior pastor, Mike McClure, as defendants, saying that they “have chosen to flagrantly and repeatedly” violate public health orders.

More than $350,000 in civil fines also failed to deter the church from hosting gatherings, documents show.

In livestreamed videos posted on the church’s YouTube channel, dozens of people can be seen congregating in pews and even hugging or conversing near one another on multiple occasions. The videos also show several people sharing the same microphone to sing and speak on a stage.

“Calvary’s gatherings are massive in size and pose an imminent risk of a super-spreader event,” the complaint says.

Church officials and congregants did not respond to requests for comment, although McClure told the Mercury News in May that he didn’t care what officials said and that he was “never again going to close the doors, ever.”

Cavalry is far from the only church to come under fire for flouting pandemic protocols. Earlier this year, a church in South Korea was linked to more than 300 cases of the coronavirus, and in April, at least 70 cases were linked to a Pentecostal church in Sacramento.

Similar scenes of infection and even death have played out in churches in Kentucky, West Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maine, North Carolina and other states, according to court documents.

The houses of worship in Mendocino and Butte counties say the governor’s edict violates their 1st Amendment rights.

“The obligation to preserve and protect life is at the heart of all major faiths,” Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen said in a statement. “We are grateful that virtually all religious congregations in the county have adapted their services to not risk the safety of their congregants or the community. All of us are making difficult sacrifices that are saving lives.”

It’s not the first time Santa Clara County has been under a microscope: It was considered an early hot spot of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak, home to the second case in California and the seventh overall in the United States.

But it was also one of the first counties to limit gatherings and issue shelter-in-place orders, both of which helped establish a foothold in the fight against the virus. With just over 25,000 confirmed cases and 406 deaths, Santa Clara currently is in the “moderate,” or orange, tier of the state’s color-coded reopening system. By comparison, Los Angeles is in the “widespread,” or purple, tier, indicating the highest risk of local infection.

“Santa Clara County is one of the safest regions in the country because of our public health officer’s thoughtful, science-based approach, and because our residents have carefully complied with public health requirements,” Santa Clara County counsel James R. Williams said in a statement.

“To keep our residents safe, and to allow schools, churches and businesses to reopen and stay open, we need everyone to do their part,” he said. “We cannot allow any organization in our community to willfully and repeatedly violate these orders, while everyone else, including other churches and religious organizations in the county, are complying.”

Reached by phone Monday, Williams said the court had granted the counsel’s request for a temporary restraining order, mandating that Cavalry Chapel comply with state and local health rules.

“We always begin with the expectation that people will follow the court order,” Williams said, “so we will take a look and see whether they’re not coming into compliance, and if not, we’ll take it from there.”