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Santa Clara County will face First Amendment claims around mask mandates for churches

A federal judge said Santa Clara County must face 1st amendment claims that it treated a church unfairly by making it abide by public health orders while secular institutions were granted exemptions.

(CN) — A federal judge ruled Friday that the state of California did not violate the rights of a church congregation when it instituted new mask rules this past fall, but said Santa Clara County will have to face claims that it interfered with the free exercise of religion by requiring masks to be worn during services at Calvary Chapel, a church based in San Jose.

“It was under these Free Exercise standards that the Supreme Court in Gateway enjoined the County’s restrictions on indoor religious gatherings, finding the outcome 'clearly dictated' by the Court’s previous decisions,” U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman wrote in a 28-page decision.

Labson Freeman told Santa Clara’s attorney during a hearing last week that their efforts to collect $2.8 million dollars from Mike McClure, the pastor of Calvary Chapel, was on constitutionally shaky ground.

“This is not the hill you want to die on,” 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. 

But as the judge alluded to in Friday's written decision, other courts have cited that case in clarifying that local public health ordinances cannot treat secular institutions differently than religious institutions.

“As to the County’s evolving face covering restrictions, Plaintiffs have alleged that the restrictions carved out exceptions for schools, day camps, childcare centers, restaurants, personal care services, sporting events and athletes, and various parts of the entertainment industry, but did not make the same accommodations for religious practice,” Labson Freeman wrote.

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 during the hearing.

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 Labson Freeman.

Labson 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. 

Labson 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 along the same lines as other secular institutions. 

But the judge 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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