Judge Slaps California Church With $1M Fine for Holding Services During COVID

A church in Los Angeles / Getty Images
April 13, 2023

A California judge on Wednesday fined a Silicon Valley church over a million dollars for allowing worshippers to attend services maskless and in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

Superior Court judge Evette Pennypacker ordered Calvary Chapel San Jose to pay $1.2 million in fines to Santa Clara County for violating the county's COVID-19 restrictions. Pennypacker's decision is the latest development in a lengthy legal battle between the church and the county, which imposed some of California's most stringent pandemic restrictions.

In her ruling, Pennypacker said that "it should appear clear to all—regardless of religious affiliation—that wearing a mask while worshipping" helps "protect others while still exercising your right to religious freedom."

Pennypacker's ruling cuts against an increasing consensus that mask mandates had neither legal nor scientific merit. The Supreme Court in 2021 struck down California Gov. Gavin Newsom's (D.) ban on indoor worship services, which lasted longer than the state's forced closure of strip clubs. A February study that found masks did almost nothing to stop the spread of respiratory viruses, such as COVID-19, has been called "the scientific nail in the coffin for mask mandates."

The church's legal saga began in May 2020, two months after it was shuttered in the initial wave of COVID lockdowns. Pastor Mike McClure announced he would open his doors to congregants, many of whom say the ability to attend church saved them from addiction, despair, and possibly death. Calvary Chapel's lawyers said they are appealing Pennypacker's decision to a California appellate court.

The church has filed a separate federal lawsuit against Santa Clara officials that is pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Court documents in both cases reveal that Santa Clara County mounted rigorous surveillance of the church and its individual members, even tracking members' movements through cell phone data and paying researchers to analyze the results.

"It's the county’s job to take care of its residents and protect the public health," Santa Clara county counsel James Williams said in a statement praising Pennypacker's ruling. "The county's lawsuit seeks to hold Calvary accountable for knowingly violating numerous public health orders during the height of the pandemic."

One of Santa Clara County's public health orders established an enforcement squad that  investigated businesses for potential violations of health department orders. County officials also encouraged residents to report on one another.

Lawyers representing the church said Pennypacker's reasoning gives them ample fodder for their appeal.

"This case will not likely end until the U.S. Supreme Court rebukes Santa Clara County again," said Robert Tyler, the president of the religious liberty firm Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which is arguing the case. "The opinion is very deficient in its analysis and provides for an excellent appeal."

Santa Clara County officials originally demanded that Calvary pay $2.8 million in fines.