Calvary Chapel, a church in San Jose, California, was fined $1.2 million for holding services during the COVID-19 outbreak without mandating that attendees wear face masks. Last Thursday, Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker ruled that the church must pay monetary penalties for repeated violations of the Santa Clara County mask ordinance between November 2020 and June 2021.
The church’s claim that the health regulations violated their religious freedoms was rejected by the court, which held that the county’s face-covering requirement was “neutral and generally applicable” to all similarly situated institutions in the county.
“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,” Pennypacker wrote in a 32-page order.
“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,” the judge said.
Many big California evangelical churches, including Calvary, disregarded state and local mask-wearing and social distance laws enacted during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The church and the county have been locked in a protracted legal battle.
Calvary Chapel’s attorney, Mariah Gondeiro of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, has argued the masking orders were illegal on the grounds that they were not implemented uniformly.
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“They exempted essential government entities, as well as personal care [businesses] like hair and nail salons, and entertainment studios. There was no singing ban on entertainment studios, so they could continue their productions,” she told The Free Press last month.
Before, the court condemned the church and its pastors in contempt and fined them for holding illegal public gatherings inside. However, this year, a state appellate court overturned those rulings, explaining that the rules governing indoor worship sessions were more restrictive than those governing more secular activities like going to the grocery shop.
The church was still being investigated by the county for disobeying the mask regulation. The County has the responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens. According to county counsel James R. Williams,
“thousands of lives were saved and the community had one of the lowest death rates of any community in the United States as a result of the County’s response to the pandemic, including the Health Officer’s public health orders and enforcement against entities that refused to follow the law.”
“Calvary’s arguments have been rejected at almost every turn. We are gratified that the Court once again saw through Calvary’s unsupported claims and found them meritless.”
According to Gondeiro of the San Jose Mercury News, the church plans to challenge the ruling made by Pennypacker. “We look forward to establishing more precedent on appeal that will have far greater implications for the future,” she said.
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