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San Jose church must pay $1.2M for breaking COVID rules

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Posted at 6:20 PM, Apr 13, 2023

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — A California church that defied safety regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic by holding large, unmasked religious services must pay $1.2 million in fines, a judge has ruled.

Calvary Chapel in San Jose was fined last week for ignoring Santa Clara County’s mask-wearing rules between November 2020 and June 2021.

The church will appeal, attorney Mariah Gondeiro told the San Jose Mercury News.

Calvary was one of several large California evangelical churches that flouted state and local mask-wearing and social distancing rules designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during its deadliest period.

That has led to a tangled web of court rulings and challenges.

Calvary Chapel sued the county, arguing the health orders violated its religious freedom. Various courts have ruled either in favor the church or the county.

The church and its pastors were previously held in contempt of court and fined for violating limits on indoor public gatherings. But a state appellate court reversed those decisions last year, saying that the restrictions on indoor worship services were stricter than for secular activities such as going to grocery stores.

The county continued to seek fines for violations of mask-wearing regulations.

“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,” Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker wrote in the April 7 ruling imposing the fines.

The church, she said, flouted public health orders “and urged others to do so ‘who cares what the cost,’ including death.”

County Counsel James Williams said the ruling showed 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.

More than 101,000 Californians have died from COVID-19, according to state public health figures. Death and infection rates have fallen since the height of the virus’ spread, and Gov. Gavin Newsom officially ended the state’s coronavirus emergency several months ago.

Last week, the California Department of Public Health ended masking and coronavirus vaccination requirements in high-risk settings, including health care facilities and prisons.