California church fined $55,000 for flouting coronavirus orders

Pastor says he believes in masks but does not believe it is his job to police congregants 

Graig Graziosi
Wednesday 09 December 2020 20:30 GMT
Coronavirus in numbers

A church in northern California and its pastor were found in contempt of court on Tuesday for repeatedly defying an order to stop holding unmasked indoor services and for violating coronavirus health orders, officials said.

Mike McClure, the head pastor of Calvary Chapel San Jose, told NBC Bay Area that he understands the rules, but is following a higher order to continue his services.

"I respect the judge, I understand what the laws are, but there's a bigger law," he said.

Calvary Chapel San Jose was fined $55,000 for the violations.

The Santa Clara County district attorney and the county counsel sued the church in October, claiming it was holding indoor services that drew hundreds of people who were often not wearing masks.

The meetings violated health orders intended to mitigate the spread of the virus.

A court issued a temporary restraining order on the church, which Mr McClure repeatedly violated, according to the county.

Santa Clara County Counsel James R Williams said the church was putting the community at risk by flouting the orders.

“Given the current surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations, it is absolutely vital for all individuals and entities to urgently and fully comply with all public health orders,” Mr Williams said in a statement. “These public health orders are literally a matter of life and death; they are designed to reduce Covid-19 transmission, avoid serious illness, and save lives.  This entity’s ongoing violations put the whole community at risk, and they won’t be tolerated.”

According to the state's health department, more than 20,000 people have died from Covid-19 in California. Like the rest of the country, cases in California are rising, which is putting a strain on hospital resources.

Attorneys representing the church said the county's restrictions on religious institutions are unconstitutional, and said they would appeal the ruling and will try to have the case moved into federal court.

Mr McClure said he is not against mask wearing, but believes it should be a personal decision, and it is not a rule he is willing to enforce on his congregants.

"I'm not a policeman, I'm a pastor," he said.

Supporters of Mr McClure and the church gathered outside the San Jose courthouse with signs reading "Churches are essential" to protest the ruling.

Health experts have warned that the latest surge in cases has largely been the result of people letting their guards down and attending indoor gatherings in the wake of state re-openings that begin in late summer. The pressure of maintaining family gatherings during the holidays and the increased isolation caused by winter has only exacerbated the spread of the virus.

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