A California Supreme Court ruling ended a chapter in an ongoing legal battle between a San Jose church and county officials that could have far-reaching implications for religious activists and public health officials.
Wednesday’s ruling rejected a recent offer by Santa Clara County to compel 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 scorned and fined in 2020 and 2021 for violating a restraining order and restraining order aimed at preventing them from holding indoor gatherings in violation of the government’s policies during the COVID-19 – Pandemic violated state and local health regulations put in place.
A ruling by the state’s 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in August overturned the lower courts’ decisions and ruled in favor of the church.
County officials then went to the state’s highest court to review the case. Although Wednesday’s verdict fell partially in favor of the church, the judges also distorted the appeals court’s ruling by ordering the decision to be published — a move that prevents the ruling from being cited and obliterates its ability to set a precedent .
“We are very pleased that the 6th Circuit’s decision was not made public,” said Santa Clara District Attorney James Williams. “It confirms our concerns that it was a legally flawed decision.”
For Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney representing Calvary Chapel, this week’s verdict was “a relief.”
“We are pleased that the California Supreme Court has decided not to take up the matter,” Gondeiro said. “We have great confidence in a federal lawsuit seeking to hold the county accountable for its unconstitutional public health orders.”
The federal lawsuit, in which Calvary Chapel and Southridge Church argue that the county’s stay-at-home orders and ban on in-person worship are unconstitutional, is still pending.
And Santa Clara County’s core case against Calvary Chapel also remains pending in state court, Williams said.
The church still faces fines for violating public health orders, he said. According to an amended complaint filed in July 2021, the county sought to collect more than $2.8 million in fines and charges.
By releasing the 6th Circuit’s opinion Wednesday, the state Supreme Court was essentially saying the lower Circuit Court of Appeals reached a wrong conclusion, but the Supreme Court will not take up the case and deal with the matter, Williams said.
Court challenges from churches and religious organizations to public health regulations come as the US Supreme Court has a conservative supermajority.
“We have that [U.S.] Supreme court that can be trusted and the court is very pro-religious,” Gondeiro said.
Last year, Los Angeles County officials paid Grace Community Church $400,000 to settle a lawsuit the county had brought against the church, which continued to hold in-person worship services while bans were in place.
State officials also paid the Sun Valley Church $400,000 in legal fees.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-12-02/california-supreme-court-san-jose-church-covid-19-contempt-of-court-fines San Jose church avoids over $200,000 in COVID-19 fines