A California church scored a significant victory against Santa Clara County in its nearly two-year legal battle on Monday.
A state appeals court has reversed temporary restraining orders, preliminary injunctions, and more than $200,000 in contempt of court fines that had been targeted at the church.
As CBN News reported, Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastors were held in contempt of court and fined in 2020 and 2021 for violating state and county pandemic limits on indoor public gatherings.
But on Monday, California's 6th District Court of Appeal reversed those lower court decisions, citing a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2021 that Gov. Gavin Newsom's ban on indoor worship services violated freedom of religion.
"For the reasons stated below, we conclude that the temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions are facially unconstitutional pursuant to the recent guidance of the United States Supreme Court regarding the First Amendment's protection of the free exercise of religion in the context of public health orders that impact religious practice," the California appeals court ruled.
"As the underlying orders which Calvary Chapel violated are void and unenforceable, we will annul the orders of contempt in their entirety and reverse the orders to pay monetary sanctions," the court continued.
The court noted that the restrictions on indoor gatherings also applied to secular gatherings but were stricter for worship services than for secular activities such as going to grocery stores.
The church and pastors are represented by lawyers at Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a non-profit law firm.
"This is a significant victory for churches and pastors across this country," said Advocates for Faith & Freedom President Robert Tyler in a statement. "We are honored to represent pastors and churches who are willing to take the heat in defense of liberty because it benefits everyone."
"I thank God that our actions have been justified by the Court of Appeal," Calvary Chapel Pastor Mike McClure said in a press release. "We are here to help the hurting, save the lost, and worship God without governmental intrusion."
Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams told The Mercury News he was "not surprised" with the ruling, but found it "disappointing." The outlet reported Williams' office and the District Attorney are discussing whether to challenge the appellate court's ruling by taking the case to the California Supreme Court.
Church and Pastor Still Facing $2.8 Million in Fines
Meanwhile, despite the ruling, Calvary Chapel and McClure are still facing $2.8 million in fines for not shutting down the church's worship services and for allowing people to come to pray at their building in person after Gov. Gavin Newsom tried to close churches statewide in 2020.
"Calvary did not dispute the fact of its numerous and serious violations during the height of the pandemic and before vaccinations were available," a county statement said. "We will continue to hold Calvary accountable for putting our community's health and safety at risk."
The church and McClure filed a federal lawsuit in October of 2020 against California and Santa Clara County challenging the constitutionality of the state and county government's COVID orders.
The county retaliated, suing the church later that same month for $2.8 million, claiming the church was a public health hazard and a nuisance for holding worship services in defiance of the county's COVID mandate. The county also classified the church as a commercial entity rather than a non-profit ministry.
Santa Clara County officials are still demanding the church pay the fines, arguing that it violated health orders regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in five separate cases that the government cannot treat houses of worship as second-class institutions with harsh penalties and restrictions that exceed the restrictions placed on "essential" businesses.
Federal Judge to County Attorney: 'This Is Not The Hill You Want to Die On'
As CBN News reported in March, a federal judge told a county attorney during a court hearing that the effort to punish Calvary Chapel for defying the county's mask mandate may not be constitutional, according to Court House News.
"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."
Freeman told Wall, "This litigation has mushroomed out of control," and urged both sides to settle through mediation.
The county attorney argued that the church's defiance of local mandates came when COVID-19 cases were at an all-time high in Santa Clara County and throughout the state. This claim was refuted by the church's attorney.
"The health statistics may be right, but if the underlying law you are relying upon is unconstitutional, then that's it," the judge told the county attorney, who also indicated that the church may have legitimate constitutional claims.
County Public Health Director Scheduled to be Deposed Thursday
The case continues to be litigated in state and federal courts.
CBN News reached out to the Santa Clara County Counsel's Office for comment about the ongoing litigation.
The county's public information office replied, "We are assessing next steps regarding this decision, but the Sixth District's ruling does not affect the County's own enforcement action against Calvary, which included violations for failing to require face coverings and many other public health requirements. We will continue to hold Calvary accountable for putting our community's health and safety at risk, and we are proud of the County's proactive efforts throughout the pandemic to save lives."
Meanwhile, advocates attorney Mariah Gondeiro said separately, "the state Court of Appeal ruling should foreshadow the expected outcome in federal court. We expect complete victory in the end."
As CBN News reported in May, attorneys for the church and the county met per the judge's request, but could not come to an agreement to settle the litigation.
Gondeiro told CBN News at the time that her office's next step was to depose Dr. Sara Cody and prepare a motion for summary judgment.
Dr. Cody is the public health director of Santa Clara County. She instituted some of the most aggressive and restrictive responses to COVID-19 in the country and said she was the first to recommend lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, according to Court House News.
The Mercury News reports Cody will be deposed on Thursday as a part of the two lawsuits.