SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A California county has filed a lawsuit against a San Jose church to stop it from holding weekly indoor services for hundreds of people, claiming $350,000 in fines have not stopped church officials from violating coronavirus shutdown orders.
Santa Clara County said Friday it filed for a restraining order against Calvary Chapel San Jose and Pastor Mike McClure over the services that attract about 600 people who don’t wear masks or social distance.
Under the county’s health order, indoor gatherings for religious or other purposes are capped at 100 people, masks must be worn, and social distancing requirements must be followed.
County officials spent months trying to work with church officials and issued fines when they refused to comply, the county said.
“After church officials made clear they had no intention of ending their dangerous conduct, the county counsel and district attorney filed the request for a court order,” it said.
In March, Santa Clara and a group of San Francisco Bay Area counties ordered shutdowns to prevent the spread of the virus, becoming the first area in the country to impose such restrictions. A few days later, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered statewide closures.
The San Jose church was holding drive-up services until McClure reopened it for regular services in May, vowing to keep it open.
In August, county officials issued a cease and desist letter after receiving a complaint about the services. But the church ignored it and continued the services. Officers with the county reported seeing at least 100 people inside the church who were not wearing face coverings or staying six feet away from other attendees while people were singing, the complaint says.
Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney representing McClure and the church, said the request for a restraining order is unjustified and “pure fear mongering” because the gatherings have been safe and the church hasn’t reported any virus cases.
“The fact that they waited five months to bring this temporary restraining order, and the church has seen no COVID-19 undermines the idea that there is some type of emergency,” she said.
In a legal filing, church attorneys argued that the county’s request for a restraining order is unconstitutional because counties don’t have the authority to restrict people’s religious liberties.
A hearing on the case is scheduled Monday,
McClure said he opened his church after seeing many members going through mental suffering because of the isolation brought on by the closures and that he plans to continue helping them.
“I’m just gonna keep ministering to people because it’s not just services that we do. We do a lot of things to help people,” he said. “We’re gonna keep helping the hurting.”
Many churches across the U.S. have gone to court to challenge public health closures during the pandemic, alleging bans on religious gatherings during shutdowns violate their First Amendment rights to assemble.
In Southern California, a Pentecostal church filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against La Habra Heights, its city manager and a neighbor who has repeatedly complained to the city about their services, saying they violated the constitutional rights of the church and its leaders by falsely accusing them of not following health orders.
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