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Churches’ fight over Santa Clara County Covid restrictions on thin ice

The churches had openly flouted Santa Clara County's restrictions on religious gatherings and mask mandate — and face millions in fines as a result.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Ruling on a fourth amended complaint in a case that goes back to the early days of the pandemic, a federal judge gutted the bulk of two Santa Clara County churches' claims they were unfairly and unconstitutionally targeted by the county's lockdown orders — but kept alive state constitutional claims for which the churches seek only nominal damages.

The new order comes in Santa Clara County’s long-running dispute with Calvary Chapel San Jose and Southridge Church and their pastors. The churches challenged the county’s Covid policies and emergency orders meant to limit crowds at facilities like churches, restrict activities like singing and chanting and require mask wearing in many areas.

Dr. Sara Cody, the county's public health director, instituted some of the most aggressive and restrictive responses to Covid in the nation and said she was the first to recommend lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. The county was one of the last in California to rescind its indoor mask mandate, doing so almost three weeks after the state.

The churches claim the emergency orders imposed harsher restrictions on churches than other institutions. They openly defied the orders, leading the county to fine them millions and send what they called “threatening letters” to Calvary Chapel’s bank.

The county won an injunction ordering McClure and the churchgoers to mask up during services. When they refused, a Santa Clara County judge found the church in contempt. Fines imposed on the church have accrued to $4.3 million.

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman, a Barack Obama appointee, had said the county’s orders could be unconstitutional but urged the parties to resolve their differences through mediation. And in another case brought by different Santa Clara County pastors, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down certain aspects of California’s Covid-19 regulations as they applied to religious institutions, finding the state could not impose capacity restrictions on houses of worship or treat them differently than secular institutions. 

When she found the county's orders might be unconstitutional this past March, Freeman wrote that once the final fine is decided she is inclined to let Eighth Amendment claims go forward despite the county's effort to dismiss the church’s claims that the fines represent “cruel and unusual punishment." Freeman indicated the county may have been overzealous in pursuing multimillion-dollar fines against a church that may have legitimate constitutional claims regarding a right to in-person worship under Supreme Court precedent. 

But in a 14-page order issued Thursday, Freeman tossed the federal civil rights claims in the fourth amended complaint. She found the inclusion of county officials as defendants redundant since the county is also a defendant and she struck claims relating to the "threatening letters" to Calvary Chapel's bank because they were part of enforcement of the judicially approved imposition of fines and therefore protected.

Freeman also dismissed the churches' claims for damages under California's Bane Act because the churches admittedly failed to comply with the Government Claims Act's requirement to present said claims within a certain timeframe before suing. She dismissed all these claims with prejudice, meaning it's the end of the road for the churches there.

But Freeman kept the plaintiffs' two California Constitution claims alive for now, rejecting the county's effort to have them tossed as well under the Government Claims Act.

“Aside from declaratory and injunctive relief, these claims seek only nominal damages,” Freeman wrote. “Such claims are not subject to the claim representation requirement of the Government Claims Act, as nominal damages are incidental to the declaratory and injunctive relief.”

In a phone interview, the churches' attorney Mariah Gondeiro with the nonprofit law firm Advocates for Faith and Freedom said the plaintiffs "feel confident about the case and proving their position that churches were unfairly targeted." They should have received exemptions, she said.

“It’s not a significant decision in any way,” Gondeiro said. “We have tons of evidence that there were a lot of exemptions given on the face covering guidance, as well as on the singing and chanting ban.”

Lawyers for the county did not respond to a request for comment. A settlement conference for the case is scheduled for Oct. 13.

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