(CN) — A federal judge on Thursday told an attorney for Santa Clara County the pursuit to punish a local church for defying the county’s mask mandate may not be constitutional.
“This is not the hill you want to die on,” U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman told Deputy Chief County Counsel Robin Wall during the hearing. “The U.S. Supreme Court has clarified the law over the past two years and I intend to abide by the law as described.”
The Supreme Court ruled against certain aspects of California’s Covid-19 regulations as they applied to religious institutions, saying the state could not impose capacity restrictions on houses of worship or treat them differently than secular institutions.
Freeman is hearing Santa Clara County’s ongoing dispute with Calvary Chapel in San Jose, where pastor Mike McClure and his congregation have refused to wear masks despite county orders since the beginning of the pandemic.
County officials took the church and its pastor to Santa Clara County Superior Court, where they won an injunction ordering McClure and the churchgoers to mask up while service was ongoing.
They refused. The court then found the church in contempt and the county imposed fines on the church which have accrued to $4.3 million, according to Wall.
“The county is seeking to collect $2.8 million,” Wall said.
Freeman said that once the final fine is decided she is inclined to let Eighth Amendment claims go forward, denying the county’s attempts to dismiss the church’s claims that the fines represent “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Mariah Gondeiro, attorney for Calvary Church, said the county has pursued the fines out of a sense of personal vengeance rather than a concern for the health and safety of its residents.
“Covid-19 was not spreading en masse in churches and there has not been a single case that has been traced back to this,” Gondeiro told Freeman.
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.
“This litigation has mushroomed out of control,” Freeman told Wall during the hearing, and strenuously recommended the two sides come to a mutual understanding soon through mediation with an eye toward a settlement.
Wall argued that Calvary Church’s defiance of local mandates came when cases were at an all-time high in Santa Clara County and throughout the state of California.
Labson Freeman did not appear swayed by the argument.
“The health statistics may be right, but if the underlying law you are relying upon is unconstitutional, then that’s it,” she told Wall.
Freeman did dismiss the state of California as a defendant, given that when California revived its mask mandate this past November in response to the omicron wave, it exempted religious institutions.
But Freeman noted Santa Clara County published its own rules that in some cases exceeded restrictions imposed by the state.
“Santa Clara County had its own details and orders that differed from its neighbors and others in the state,” she said in explaining why she would allow the case to proceed against the county but not the state.
Dr. Sara Cody, the public health director of Santa Clara County, instituted some of the most aggressive and restrictive responses to Covid in the country 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.
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