Federal Judge Declines to Overturn Contempt of Court Charge for California Church

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(CN) — As expected, a federal court declined to grant a temporary restraining order Friday to a California-based church that has repeatedly flouted local Covid restrictions during an ongoing state case. 

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman denied Calvary Chapel, a church based in San Jose, a requested temporary restraining order, noting that the San Jose Superior Court is entertaining an ongoing case in which the church and its pastor — Mike McClure — have been held in contempt of court. 

“Amidst the struggling days of the COVID-19 pandemic, plaintiffs Calvary Chapel San Jose, Southridge Baptist Church, Mike McClure, and Micaiah Irmler (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) ask this court to disregard our Federalism and seek a temporary restraining order,” Labson Freeman wrote in a terse nine-page order

McClure, the pastor at Calvary Chapel, did close his church on the orders of Santa Clara County in the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic, which began in earnest in the United States and California in March. 

In May, McClure resumed in-person religious activities and continued to hold services with a full church, without masks and in defiance of social distancing provisions. 

In June, public health officials received an anonymous complaint about the direct flouting of local ordinances, at which time county officials began to dialogue with McClure and the church. 

Those conversations proved unfruitful and the county undertook an enforcement action against the church in October, seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the church from conducting indoor services. 

They were awarded the order by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Peter Kirwan in early November, but McClure and Calvary Church refused to comply, resulting in a contempt of court proceeding against the church. 

In the meantime, the Supreme Court ruled on a lawsuit brought by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn, saying the government could not treat religious institutions differently than secular ones as it relates to coronavirus restrictions. 

McClure and the other plaintiffs attempted to use this ruling to justify its practices and asked the state court to reconsider its contempt of court proceedings in terms of the new rulings. 

Kirwan was not swayed. 

McClure then brought his claims to federal court, asking it to consider its position in light of the Supreme Court ruling, but Labson Freeman was also not persuaded by the argument in light of the new ruling. 

In fact, she noted that the churches in the Supreme Court case had a history of compliance with the local coronavirus restrictions, as opposed to Calvary Church, which flouted them routinely. 

“Plaintiffs do not have a history of compliance,” said Robin Wall, attorney for Santa Clara County during a Thursday hearing. “They have flouted the rules at every opportunity.”

Labson Freeman also noted that the Supreme Court, in their ruling, conceded that “[s]temming the spread of COVID-19 is unquestionably a compelling state interest,” but were concerned about rules that seemed to treat religious institutions and places of worship more harshly than other secular places. 

But ultimately, this case came down to the fact that plaintiffs were asking the federal court to intercede in a matter pending in state court and to violate the principles of federalism which regulates and separates state and federal powers. 

“Our Federalism properly places this dispute in the more-than-capable hands of the Santa Clara County Superior Court,” Labson Freeman wrote. 

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