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Santa Clara County asks judge to increase fines owed by San Jose church for violating COVID orders

Santa Clara County asks judge to increase fines owed by San Jose church for violating COVID orders

In the latest development in the lengthy legal between Santa Clara County and Calvary Chapel, a judge rejected a Santa Clara County bid to increase the $1.2 million court ordered fines owed by the San Jose church for ignoring public health mandates at the height of the pandemic.

During a court hearing last Thursday, the county argued the earlier dollar amount was reached in error. The county began fining the Hillsdale Avenue church in August 2020 for holding indoor services with maskless congregants — a violation of public health orders at the time.

But the church refused to pay the fines, which in 2022 the county said had amassed to nearly $3 million. In April, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker ordered Calvary Chapel to pay $1.2 million, reducing the fines to a specific period — November 2020 through June 2021 — when the church didn’t follow the mask mandate.

But last week, the county’s attorneys argued that number fell short of what they had fined the church and asked the judge to increase the order to $2,457,400. Pennypacker denied the county’s request.

“The county had asked the court to correct what the county believed was a mistake in calculating the fines, and the court confirmed its computation,” Santa Clara County Counsel Tony LoPresti said in a statement. “The county is proud of its public health orders, enforcement and overall response to the pandemic, which saved thousands of lives, resulting in one of the lowest death rates of any major county in the United States.”

Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which represents the church, said in an email that “the church has no plans on paying the fines.”

“They will be appealing the decision and are confident the appeals court will side with the church,” she said.

Calvary Chapel fired back at the county for its public health mandates last week by filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco alleging that the county “embarked on an invasive and warrantless geofencing operation to track residents” during the pandemic.

In late 2020 and early 2021, the county used publicly available third-party phone data to track the density of worshipers inside the church, according to court documents filed last November.

The county then used data, which was from the Denver-based company SafeGraph, to compare the size of Calvary Chapel’s services from March 2020 to 2021 with other gatherings throughout the county.

In the lawsuit, the church and Pastor Mike McClure called the geofencing operation “not just un-American,” but “downright Orwellian.”