A California church has been ordered to pay over $1 million in COVID fines, in what some are calling an outrageous and punitive ruling that violates the church‘s religious freedom.
Calvary Chapel San Jose was ordered to pay $1.2 million in fines after the church refused to comply with Santa Clara County‘s COVID–19 restrictions, which the church said violated their religious freedom. Superior Court Judge Evette Pennypacker said in her ruling that “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.”
The church‘s attorney Mariah Gondeiro said that the ruling is unacceptable and that the church will be appealing the decision. “We look forward to establishing more precedent on appeal that will have far greater implications for the future,” she said.
The ruling is the latest in the battle between the county and the church, which began after the church was given fines beginning in November 2020 and up to June 2021 when it did not follow the county’s restrictions and it challenged the rules in federal court. The church faces fines over masks, social distancing, and hosting large gatherings.
Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams said that the county‘s orders were aimed at public health, not targeting religious institutions. “It’s the County’s job to take care of its residents and protect the public health,” he said.
The court documents also revealed that the county may have violated civil liberties by monitoring the cell phone usage of congregants at the church. The Mercury News reported that the county used “geofencing” in an attempt to see how many people were at various church services.
Gondeiro said that the county has gone too far in its efforts to target the church. “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,” she said.
Medical professor Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University echoed Gondeiro‘s sentiments, calling the ruling “outrageous.” “Throughout the pandemic, California state courts have flouted the 1st amendment right to freedom of worship, & ignored evidence–based medicine. This punitive ruling is outrageous, which the church will certainly appeal. May a wiser judge be found,” he said.
The court‘s ruling has sparked outrage amongst those who believe the ruling is a violation of the church‘s religious freedom. It remains to be seen if the church will be able to successfully appeal the ruling.