A San Jose church has been ordered to pay $1.2 million in fines for violating local and state COVID-19 rules, specifically the mask and social distancing mandates.
The ruling was issued by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker on Wednesday as part of the numerous measures the county took to enforce restrictions against Calvary Chapel San Jose.
A San Jose church that defied safety regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic by holding large, unmasked religious services must pay $1.2M in fines, a judge has ruled. https://t.co/505bTIMpJp
— KSBY (@KSBY) April 14, 2023
The church resumed in-person services on May 31, 2020, after pausing physical gatherings in March. By November, the church began to accrue fines when the county issued it a notice of violation. The county’s issue lies with the fact that the church did not enforce social distancing or require attendees to wear masks when it resumed.
The church had attempted to fight off the case with the argument that the restrictions were a violation of the church’s right to practice religious and worship activities freely. However, Judge Pennypacker ruled out the constitutional claims on April 7, writing that the fines were “solely the result of Defendants’ own egregious conduct.”
“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. Unfortunately, Defendants repeatedly refused to model, much less, enforce this gesture,” she stated.
The ruling reflects the ongoing tension between religious freedom and public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the church’s claims of constitutional violations, Judge Pennypacker’s decision upholds the county’s efforts to protect the health and safety of its residents.
The court order is only a fraction of the $2.8 million the county originally sought. However, the church is hoping to get the decision overturned in California’s Sixth District Court of Appeal.
“We believe Judge Pennypacker’s decision to enforce $1.2 million in fines violates the United States Constitution,” said Vice President of Advocates for Faith and Freedom, Mariah Gondeiro.
The higher court had in the past reversed a lower court ruling that ordered the church to pay a $200,000 fine for contempt of court following a Supreme Court ruling that the ban on indoor worship services by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was a violation of religious freedom.