California Supreme Court allows San Jose church to avoid over $200,000 in COVID-19 fines
A California Supreme Court ruling brought an end to one chapter of an ongoing legal battle between a San Jose church and county officials that could have wide-ranging implications for religious activists and public health authorities.
Wednesday’s ruling denied a final bid by Santa Clara County to force Calvary Chapel to pay more than $200,000 in fees after the church was found in contempt of court.
The church and its pastors were held in contempt and fined in 2020 and 2021 for violating a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that sought to block it from holding indoor gatherings that broke state and county public health rules put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A ruling in August by the state’s 6th District Court of Appeal reversed the lower court decisions and came down in favor of the church.
The court says a church that defied safety regulations during the pandemic by holding large services won’t have to pay about $200,000 in fines.
County officials then turned to the state’s highest court in a bid to get the case reviewed. Although Wednesday’s ruling was partially in favor of the church, the justices also defanged the appeal court’s ruling by ordering the decision be depublished — a move that prevents the ruling from being cited and erases its ability to set legal precedent.
“We’re very pleased that the 6th District’s decision has been depublished,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams. “It validates our concerns that it was a legally erroneous decision.”
For Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney representing Calvary Chapel, this week’s ruling was “a relief.”
“We are pleased the California Supreme Court chose not to take up the matter,” Gondeiro said. “We are very confident in a federal lawsuit where we seek to hold the county accountable for their unconstitutional public health orders.”
The federal lawsuit, in which Calvary Chapel and Southridge Church argue that the county’s stay-at-home orders and bans on in-person religious services were unconstitutional, remains pending.
And Santa Clara County’s core case against Calvary Chapel also remains pending in state court, Williams said.
New hospitalizations have tripled in the last month. A new mask order is possible in the coming weeks if hospitalization metrics worsen.
The church still faces fines for violating public health orders, he said. According to an amended complaint filed in July 2021, the county was seeking to collect more than $2.8 million in administrative fines and fees.
By depublishing the 6th District’s opinion Wednesday, the state Supreme Court basically said the lower appellate court came to the wrong conclusion, but the high court was not going to take up the case and wade into the matter, Williams said.
Legal challenges to public health rules brought by churches and religious organizations come as the U.S. Supreme Court boasts a conservative supermajority.
“We have the [U.S.] Supreme Court to rely on, and the court is very favorable to religion,” Gondeiro said.
Last year, Los Angeles County officials paid Grace Community Church $400,000 to settle a lawsuit the county brought against the church, which continued to hold in-person services while bans were in place.
State officials also paid the Sun Valley church $400,000 for legal fees.
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