Standing Firm Under Fire: Part 2

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Standing Firm Under Fire: Part 2

California Calvary Chapel’s Long Battle Continues
Part two of a series about how one church’s court case offers an eye-opening view of government overreach and Christian persecution in America

Story by Christmas Beeler
Photos by Josh Larson

In war, sometimes wearing out one’s opponent is a strategy in itself. The lengthy battle that one Calvary Chapel in northern California is fighting simply to keep their doors open and minister to the hurting continues—despite multiple rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court in their favor. Even legal experts are staggered at Santa Clara County’s refusal to relent. Nevertheless, the Lord is adding to the church weekly, and believers are finding faith to replace their fears of persecution and arrest. The church isn’t done—not by a long shot. They have added some names to the lawsuit in an effort to get to the root of the animosity.

Follow this series at… Part 1: California Calvary Protests County’s Intrusive Penalties, $3M Fines. Part 3: Big Tech, the Spirit of Antichrist, and Christian Persecution in America.

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Mike McClure, senior pastor of Calvary Christian Fellowship (CCF) in San Jose, CA, addresses his faithful congregation on a recent Sunday.

A Long Battle

Though county officials reduced imposed penalties by nearly $1 million, Pastor Mike McClure still faces fines of $2.8 million for holding church services and allowing people to come pray at Calvary Christian Fellowship (CCF) in San Jose, CA. Even though California Gov. Gavin Newsom was forced to allow churches to meet again after the U.S. Supreme Court overruled his year-long statewide shutdown in February, Santa Clara County (SCC) officials still have not relented.

One of the baffling things about Pastor Mike’s prolonged battle with SCC officials is that the case appears to have been won several times already.

In fact, the Supreme Court has issued multiple rulings over the past year that support Mike’s right to keep his doors open. Citing the First Amendment, in November of 2020 the Supreme Court ruled that New York officials could not keep churches closed. In December, Calvary Chapels in Nevada also won back the right to assemble after casinos in their state had already been hosting hundreds of visitors. As a result, all around the nation, municipalities and courts allowed churches to reopen. Still, California held fast to its oppressive statewide shelter-in-place orders. Weary of the harsh restrictions, churches in California then sued Gov. Newsom last spring and received the ruling from the Supreme Court that California had to allow churches to meet in some capacity on February 5. Houses of worship throughout Santa Clara County rejoiced and opened their doors, only to be threatened within 48 hours of that decision with county fines for doing so—causing much public confusion, apparent on many churches’ social media feeds.

A few days later, a circuit court overruled SCC but then recanted when the county set church attendance caps at 20%. Soon after, Santa Clara County returned to their earlier policy that churches could not worship indoors at all. Having had enough, five churches joined together to file a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court to force Santa Clara County officials to allow houses of worship to open their doors after almost a year of closure.

On February 26th, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 to reject Santa Clara’s ban on indoor worship services and ordered the county to fall in line with the rest of the state. Yet, more than six months later, that county is still seeking to penalize Calvary Chapel for not forcing its attendees to socially distance or wear masks and for allowing singing—none of which was ordered by the Supreme Court. Tens of thousands of churches in California have been meeting since February, yet county leaders refuse to drop their fines against the Calvary Chapel in San Jose.

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Mike (left) and Carson Atherly (center), assistant pastor/young adults, enjoy talking with their congregants after church services. They and their church family have stood firm against persistent legal pressure and threats from Santa Clara County officials for keeping church doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mike described his congregation: “The people in our church have counted the cost. They are so glad that they have decided to follow Christ, so glad to have a God who loves them. They have a faith that has replaced their fear.”

“Even the State of California has paid and settled out [church] cases,” said Bob Tyler, founder of Advocates for Faith and Freedom (AFF), who represents CCF San Jose in the ongoing legal battle. “The county won’t let it go even though it’s in their best interests to let go and move on.” Unfortunately, he believes the case could stretch on for months or even two more years.

“Pastor McClure is the poster child of COVID-19 abuse. Not only has Santa Clara County fined the church over $2.8 million for violating arbitrary COVID-19 orders, but they have also sought to hold the church and McClure in contempt twice, and then sent threatening letters to the church’s bank. This is government abuse at its finest,” said Mariah Gondeiro, also an attorney with AFF.

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Pastors Mike and Carson (far right) share encouragement with two women. CCF has been fined $2.8 million by Santa Clara County for defying orders to remain closed early in the pandemic. Although churches are now open in California, the county is imposing strict social distancing requirements. Mike feels those requirements are unconstitutional and hinder congregants’ ability to pray together, lay hands on each other (in prayer), and partake of holy communion.

Fighting for Their Right to Worship

In the most recent development, Pastor Mike and another San Jose pastor are suing Santa Clara County Attorney James Williams for unlawful retaliation against their churches. Throughout his career, Williams has led or partnered in many court cases against conservative groups on topics such as abortion, LGBT+ issues, illegal immigration, and church services. He oversees a staff with more than 100 other attorneys that work for Santa Clara.

CCF San Jose’s 28-page complaint filed September 30 with the Northern District Court of San Jose outlines how the county’s unconstitutional restrictions impede worship services: “Social distancing rules hinder congregants’ ability to pray for one another, lay hands on one another, and partake of holy communion. Several congregants have also expressed to Pastor McClure they felt intimidated by the County enforcement officers’ persistent surveillance of church services. Some congregants even believed the County was going to order the police to arrest them for attending church. They wore an extra set of clothes, so they were prepared in the event they were arrested.” 

From a spiritual perspective, Mike has seen his flock grow in their faith under the continued persecution. “The people in our church have counted the cost. They are so glad that they have decided to follow Christ, so glad to have a God who loves them. They have a faith that has replaced their fear,” he said, citing 2 Timothy 1:7, For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. “There was so much fear, yet God has not given us fear but His power, His love, and a sound mind. Every week I see their joy, their soundness of mind. That’s worth everything. For me, if I should get arrested or go to jail, I wouldn’t change a thing because of the people who have been touched.”

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Mike reads Scripture during a service. In the fellowship’s fight for the right to minister during the pandemic, Advocates for Faith and Freedom (AFF) have been representing CCF. Founder Bob Tyler believes the case could stretch on for months, or even years.

In the filed petition, the church notes that county officials recognized the community’s need for hope, even allowing some businesses to stay open—businesses, Bob Tyler has pointed out, that do not have the same protection as churches under the First Amendment. The case document states, “The COVID orders interfered with church services at a time when County residents desperately needed a church community with the United States suffering the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression and mental health problems soaring, including suicide rates in Santa Clara County. Indeed, the State and County Officials often recognized these problems and they allowed certain secular activities, like pet groomers and marijuana shops, to continue operating because they opined those activities would help people cope with mental health issues. Churches were not as highly regarded by these government officials.”

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During the COVID-19 lockdown, many flocked to CCF for solid Bible teaching, hope, and spiritual help. Mike shared, “We have baptized over 400 people in the last few months. … Every week we have many people come to Christ.”

Not only did the county violate the First Amendment, states the church’s petition, but they also violated the Fourteenth Amendment (“by creating COVID-19 health orders that … treated indoor religious services as less essential and more dangerous than similarly situated secular activities”); the Eighth Amendment (“which prohibits the government from imposing excessive fines on Americans”); and the California Constitution (which “protects against cruel and unusual punishment and excessive fines”).

The September 30 petition continues: “... County officials, led by Mr. Williams, are still trying to collect millions of dollars in fines they imposed on Plaintiffs. These fines are, on their face, grossly disproportional to the alleged harm Plaintiffs created. Indeed, Plaintiffs did no harm. Neither the State nor the County have been able to trace a single COVID-19 case to Plaintiffs’ services. The fines serve just one purpose: to punish Plaintiffs for standing up to the County’s arbitrary and unlawful orders and to pressure others to pay their own fines instead of challenging the orders. The Constitution forbids such actions.

The petition describes potential future harm to churches: “Furthermore, despite the Supreme Court’s admonitions, County officials insist that they have the power to close churches in the future if they decide it is necessary to protect public health. State officials also believe they have such authority. There is a real risk of that happening, especially with a new variant of COVID-19 spreading across the globe. Neither the State nor Santa Clara County have ruled out future lockdown orders to respond to the new variant."

To view CCF San Jose's petition, click here.

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These attendees are among many who share sweet fellowship after a recent CCF service.

An Interesting Saga

Bob Tyler, the Christian attorney who has been researching the case for the past 20 months, believes that the epicenter of the pandemic church shut-downs began in Silicon Valley—Santa Clara County. In fact, County Attorney James Williams has publicly implied as much. In an informative, bird’s-eye-view of the past 20 months, the September 30 petition outlines several key facts. Some from early in the pandemic are:

    Between January 26, 2020, and March 4, 2020
    …officials with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) said repeatedly that “the risk to the general public” from the coronavirus was “low.”

    On March 3, 2020
    …the CDPH issued its first detailed guidelines for fighting COVID-19. Among other things, it said that healthy people should not wear masks because they were not effective. Sonia Angell, the State Public Health Officer at the time, explained that more confirmed cases were “not necessarily a sign that the rate of infection is increasing, but that our ability to test more people more rapidly is leading to better detection.”

    On March 4, 2020
    …Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency related to COVID-19.

    On March 11, 2020
    …the governor announced that public health officials were canceling or postponing mass gatherings with 250 people or more until at least the end of March. State health officials also issued their first guidelines for “social distancing” and suggested other measures people could voluntarily undertake to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

    March 19 Speech by Gov. Newsome
    …During his March 19 speech, Gov. Newsome said that state officials believed between 250,000 and 500,000 people would die from the virus by June 2020.

    Ominous Numbers
    …“The ominous numbers the Governor cited in his ‘stay at home’ speech came from Bay Area officials, including Defendants [Dr. Sarah] Cody and Williams. In fact, Mr. Williams publicly took credit for the issuance of the statewide stay-at-home-order.”

    Four Justices Support Constitutional Rights
    … Four justices on the United States Supreme Court [wrote] on May 29, 2020, that “California’s discrimination against religious worship services contravenes the Constitution.”

    The brief also notes, “There was no rhyme or reason to the distinctions the orders made between essential and non-essential activities. For example, pet supply stores were deemed essential because, according to government officials, pets provide comfort to people dealing with mental health issues. Churches have a long record of providing similar comfort to people in need, but they were deemed non-essential and subjected to some of the strictest rules imaginable.”

    calvarysj.org

                      

    Follow this series at… Part 1: California Calvary Protests County’s Intrusive Penalties, $3M Fines. Part 3: Big Tech, the Spirit of Antichrist, and Christian Persecution in America.

                      

     

All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.

© 2021 Calvary Chapel Magazine (CCM). All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.

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