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Federal judge pauses church’s fight over Santa Clara Covid rules

A federal judge said she had to toss the case because any further involvement would hamper a parallel case in state court.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Citing pending actions in a California court, a federal judge on Friday stayed a fight between Santa Clara County and a church over the county's Covid restrictions. 

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman granted the county's request to dismiss and stay Calvary Chapel San Jose's federal claims for injunctive and declaratory relief in the long-running dispute. The church and others had 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 face coverings 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 church claims the emergency orders imposed harsher restrictions on churches than other institutions. They openly defied orders, leading the county to fine them and send what they called “threatening letters” to Calvary Chapel’s bank. 

Santa Clara County won an injunction ordering churchgoers to mask up during services. When they refused, a Santa Clara County judge found the churches in contempt and imposed fines which have accrued to $4.3 million.

This past October, Freeman gutted the bulk of the churches' claims of being unfairly and unconstitutionally targeted by the county's lockdown orders. She kept alive state constitutional claims for which the churches seek nominal damages.

The federal case had been set for trial in May, but in a 23-page order filed Friday, Freeman — a Barack Obama appointee — ruled she would now rely on precedent to abstain from further proceedings while the state case proceeds. She ruled the state’s enforcement action on Covid policies implicated important state interests and dismissed the Calvary Chapel's case without prejudice.

Calvary Chapel previously conceded the county has an interest in enforcing health and safety provisions, but argued the action does not implicate important state interests because the county sought fines.

Freeman called Calvary’s argument, that “the county does not have a legitimate interest in collecting unconstitutional fines predicated on unconstitutional public health orders,” flawed as fines are predicated on multiple public health orders “that have not been found unconstitutional by any court.”

“Calvary may prove correct that the orders are unconstitutional, but the court cannot assume that outcome at this stage in the analysis,” Freeman said.

The judge also rejected the argument that the church “does not have an adequate opportunity to file a cross-complaint in state court and reach a decision on the merits before the state court rules on the county’s [pending motion for summary judgment]” as unconvincing. 

“Even if Calvary were right that this requirement exists, Calvary’s argument would fail because Calvary has made no effort to show that it was barred from filing such a cross-complaint,” she wrote.

Finding that granting claims for injunctive, declaratory and monetary relief would enjoin the ongoing state proceeding, Freeman said her abstention is appropriate because any continued action “would result in wasted resources by allowing these matters to proceed in parallel.”

And she rejected the church's bid to keep the case alive because "'fairness requires this case to continue’ because abstaining would allow the county to avoid an adverse judgment."

"The court finds no merit in the bald assertion that either party has a greater or lesser chance of an ‘adverse judgment’ in this court or the state court," Freeman wrote, but stayed the case while the state court suit plays out "to the extent they seek monetary relief.”

Attorneys for Santa Clara County did not respond to a request for comment before deadline. But the church's attorney Mariah Gondeiro, with nonprofit law firm Advocates for Faith and Freedom, blasted the dismissal.

"It is shocking that the judge, after warning the county that 'this is not the hill you want to die on,' would punt this to the state court at the last second," Gondeiro said. "Regardless of whether the judge is unwilling to address our constitutional claims, we still feel confident about our case in state court. We will still appeal the federal court’s decision because we believe she has a duty to address the federal constitutional claims."

The parties are required to file a joint status report within 10 days after the next state court hearing.

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