A San Jose church that defied safety rules during the COVID-19 pandemic by holding large church services will not have to pay about $200,000 in fines, a state appeals court has ruled.
Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastors were held in contempt of court and fined in 2020 and 2021 for violating state and county limits on indoor public gatherings. The rules were intended to prevent the close contract spread of the virus, which has caused more than 10 million confirmed cases and more than 93,500 deaths since the pandemic began in mid-2020, according to public health figures from the ‘State.
But on Monday, the California 6th District Court of Appeals overturned those lower court rulings, citing a May 2020 ruling by the United States Supreme Court in February 2021 that a ban by Governor Gavin Newsom on the services of indoor worship in counties where COVID-19 was in full swing violated freedom of religion.
The ruling by a newly Conservative majority court came less than a year after the High Court previously ruled the ban was justified on health and safety grounds.
The appeals court noted that the restrictions on indoor gatherings also applied to secular gatherings but were stricter for worship services than for secular activities such as going to grocery stores.
The decision “is a great victory for liberty and shows vindication of the courage shown by this church” and its pastors, Robert Tyler, a church attorney, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Despite the ruling, Santa Clara County said it would continue to seek $2.3 million in penalties against the church for violating other COVID-19 rules that were unaffected by the ruling, such as the requirement for face masks during services at the end of 2020.
“Calvary did not dispute the fact of his numerous and serious violations during the height of the pandemic and before vaccinations became available,” a county statement said. “We will continue to hold Calvary accountable for endangering the health and safety of our community.”