A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge mandated a San Jose Church, Calvary Chapel, to comply with public health protocols after it was found to have allegedly continued indoor services for several hundreds of people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Judge Peter Kirwan issued a preliminary injunction that required the church and Mike McClure, its pastor, to immediately cease all indoor services in accordance with county health orders.
For several months, Calvary Chapel continued non-compliance with health regulations and ignored county public health laws regarding the number of people attending indoor services. On November 2, after about $350,000 in fines, District Attorney Jeff Rosen, County Counsel James Williams, and Public Health Officer Sara Cody went to court to order the church to comply with health regulations and limit their indoor capacity to 100 people. However, county officials said the church continued to ignore the orders.
Recently, the number of coronavirus cases in California has skyrocketed, forcing most counties to be placed into the most restrictive purple tier. The regulations banned all indoor gatherings, including religious services. On November 24, the county successfully convinced the court to modify the order.
On Monday, San Clara County officials reported 801 new COVID-19 infections and 48 hospitalizations. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the county recorded over 35,000 cases and 476 fatalities.
Even with the devastating numbers, county officials said Calvary Chapel continued to hold massive indoor service gatherings on Thanksgiving Day and the Sunday after. Most of the attendees allegedly did not wear face masks and did not maintain proper social distancing with each other.
Kirwan expressed his disappointment with the church’s negligence of his orders. He said, “These are court orders. They need to be taken seriously. I expect that when I issue an order, it is going to be followed.”
Officials scheduled a contempt of court hearing for December 8. During the hearing on Tuesday, Mariah Gondeiro, the church’s attorney, defended the church by saying Kirwan’s orders were unconstitutional. She urged the court to delay its order due to the previous 5-4 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that supported religious organizations that challenged New York’s restrictions on the size limitation of religious services.
However, Kirwan said Gondeiro’s defense was unnecessary due to the health orders a clear use of the county’s emergency powers. He added that the New York case was unquestionably different from Calvary Chapel’s situation.
Kirwan said, “We’re in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime-pandemic right now. Numbers are surging right now.” He added the spike of coronavirus cases was clear as day and that a person did not need to read newspapers or watch tv shows to realize the fact, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The judge said that San Clara County’s restrictions were fairly and evenly applied to both secular and non-secular gatherings, unlike the New York case where attendees of religious services continued to wear face masks and maintained proper social distancing. However, Gondeiro said the church submitted a social distancing plan and noted that no case was related to the indoor services.
The lead deputy county counsel, Melissa Kiniyalocts, said the submitted social distancing plan was not complete and was not yet properly submitted. Kirwan added that the lack of reported cases was irrelevant to the emergency order.
Kirwan said, “The fact that there isn’t a reported case doesn’t mean we won’t wake up tomorrow, and there will be. That’s the nature of the pandemic.”