A church in San Jose, California, was ordered by a judge earlier this month to pay $1.2 million in fines after it defied the county's COVID lockdown restrictions.
On April 7, Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker ordered Calvary Chapel to pay over a million dollars in fines for holding large religious services and failing to mandate mask-wearing between November 2020 and June 2021. The church's actions defied Santa Clara County's mask requirements at the time.
Calvary Chapel, which has been in years-long legal battles for defying the lockdown restrictions, argued that the county's rules violated its religious freedom.
Pennypack wrote in her ruling, "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 judge accused the church of "egregious conduct" that "urged" attendees to defy the restriction with a "who cares what the cost" attitude.
According to KTVU, Calvary Chapel temporarily closed its doors in March 2020 but reopened for services at the end of May 2020. However, the church, which has a capacity of 600 people, did not reopen with a capacity cap as mandated by the county at the time.
The church and its leadership were subsequently held in contempt of court and fined for failing to limit indoor capacity. However, the state appellate court reversed the decision last year, citing unequal and stricter restrictions placed on indoor religious services versus secular activities and places like grocery stores.
Concerning the appellate court's decision, Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney for the church, told Fox News Digital in August 2022, "The Supreme Court has been very clear over the last year that these orders violated the First Amendment."
Church wins court battle over COVID finesyoutu.be
"The county, as well as the state of California, allowed a lot of essential businesses – or businesses that they deemed essential – to stay open, but not this church. And that's why the appeals court ultimately overturned the fines," she explained.
Despite the earlier appeal, the county continued to seek a fine for violating its mask mandate.
In response to this month's ruling, County Counsel James Williams stated that the court "once again saw through Calvary's unsupported claims and found them meritless."
"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, saved thousands of lives and resulted in one of the lowest death rates of any community in the United States," Williams said.
Gondeiro stated that the church plans to appeal the latest court ruling.
"We look forward to establishing more precedent on appeal that will have far greater implications for the future," Gondeiro told the San Jose Mercury News.
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