California pastor found in contempt for ignoring COVID-19 mandates

Kuzma/iStockBy JULIA JACOBO, ABC News

(SAN JOSE) — A California court has found a San Jose church and its pastor in contempt for violating COVID-19 mandates as positive cases in the state are skyrocketeing.

Calvary Chapel San Jose had been hosting gatherings of up to 600 people without requiring face coverings or social distancing in “blatant disregard” of state and county restrictions, according to a court order filed Monday in Santa Clara County.

On Nov. 2, the court granted a temporary restraining order filed by the county health department to limit indoor gatherings to 100 people or 25% capacity, whichever was lower, and outdoor gatherings to 200 people, and required the church to submit a social distancing plan to be reviewed by the health department, according to court documents.

Santa Clara County Judge Peter Kirwan has since found the church and head pastor Mike McClure in contempt of court for “willfully disobeying” the temporary restraining order by continuing to hold unrestricted indoor gatherings, including worship services every Sunday, with no attempt to enforce social distancing or the wearing of masks, according to the court order. The health department provided “numerous” photographs and videos as evidence.

Additionally, the church did not submit a social distancing protocol plan to the county health department, which had attempted to get the church to cease and desist for “many months without the necessity for court intervention,” according to court documents.

In the defense’s opposition papers, the church acknowledged a “legitimate interest in mitigating the spread” of the virus but also pointed out “legitimate health risks posed when citizens are barred from attending church services” in addition to potential “mental health issues.”

Kirwan granted a preliminary injunction against the church last week, and a contempt hearing was held on Tuesday.

Hefty fines have been issued against both the church and McClure.

The church has been ordered to pay $1,500 per violation and and $1,000 per each violating event between when the first restraining order was issued on Nov. 2 and when the order was modified on Nov. 24.

The church already had been fined several hundred thousand dollars by the health department before the restraining order was issued, court documents show. The fines totaled about $350,000 before the first restraining order was issued, according to The Mercury News.

McClure faces up to $50,000 in fines after Kirwan ruled that he should pay $1,500 for each violation since Nov. 2, ABC San Francisco station KGO reported.

After the contempt hearing on Tuesday, McClure told reporters outside the courthouse that it was not his responsibility to enforce the rules.

“I’m not a policeman,” he said. “I’m a pastor.”

McClure continued to say that he respects the judge and understands what the laws are, “but there’s a bigger law.”

Defense attorney Robert Tyler, who is also the president of non-profit law firm Advocates for Faith & Freedom, plans on filing an appeal on the judge’s finding of contempt, arguing in court Tuesday that his clients’ First Amendment worship protections were being violated, according to the The Mercury News.

“I can’t believe that we’re at a point in time in society where here we have governmental officials talking about how we need to be baptizing people,” Tyler said after the hearing, The Mercury News reported.

In a statement emailed to ABC News, Tyler said, “SCOTUS has made it very clear that the government cannot deem a church inessential and ban in-person religious services while favoring “essential” businesses and operations like bicycle shops and airports. This is precisely what is happening in Santa Clara County and we believe the judge should not have made a finding of contempt. However, we have multiple challenges to this decision ongoing and believe we will prevail.”

Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new shutdown orders in southern and central California to avoid overwhelming hospitals.

Hospitalizations and deaths have neared 20,000 daily in California, and more than 1.3 million cases have been confirmed, according to the state’s health department.

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