Victory in Religious Freedom Case

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Court Grants Victory in California Calvary Chapel’s Ongoing Legal Battle

Story by Christmas Beeler
Photos by Josh Larson unless otherwise noted

Yet another court has sided with Calvary Chapel Pastor Mike McClure, who kept church doors open in San Jose, CA, during the pandemic despite being harassed and fined millions over the past two years. The nation has followed the prolonged legal battle, viewed by many as one of the most notable examples of government overreach toward churches and Christian persecution in America.

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Mike McClure, senior pastor of Calvary Christian Fellowship of San Jose (CCF San Jose), CA, and his congregation have been embroiled in an epic legal battle with Santa Clara County for two years over keeping their church doors opened during the pandemic. This week, the California Court of Appeal reversed the injunction, the contempt orders, and the monetary sanctions of three separate court cases involving CCF San Jose and the county. Despite this ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in favor of California churches last year, Mike and his fellowship continue to face more than $3 million in fines the county refuses to dismiss.

Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Christian Fellowship of San Jose (CCF San Jose) responded to this week’s victory: “I thank God that our actions have been justified by the Court of Appeal. We are here to help the hurting, save the lost, and worship God without governmental intrusion.” Despite the epic legal struggle involving multiple courts, hundreds have come to Christ at his church over the last two years.

Earlier this week, the California Court of Appeal reversed the injunction, the contempt orders, and the monetary sanctions of three separate court cases involving CCF San Jose and Santa Clara County. The good news is, nearly $200,000 in fines has been dropped. However, the church and Pastor Mike still face more than $3 million in fines that the county has so far refused to dismiss, despite this week’s ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in favor of California churches last year.

The Court of Appeal stated Monday “that the temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions are facially unconstitutional pursuant to the recent guidance of the United States Supreme Court regarding the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion in the context of public health orders that impact religious practice.”

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“We have baptized over 400 people in the last few months,” Mike shared last year. “Every week we have many people come to Christ.” Pandemic anxiety and fear drove people to search for hope amidst the crisis and isolation.

Though the church’s legal fight is not over, this week’s decision was an important one. “The win … validates the actions of Pastor Mike McClure and other pastors across this country who felt called by the Lord to continue their calling to spread the Gospel even when the government was telling them to stay home because they were not essential,” said Bob Tyler, president and founder of the non-profit legal group, Advocates for Faith & Freedom (AFF), representing CCF San Jose. “But our challenges are not over for [the church]. We are still in Federal Court battling against $3.8 million in illegal fines issued by the County of Santa Clara. We believe God is with us, so who can be against us?”

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Romans 8:31, 33

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Another AFF attorney on the case, Mariah Gondeiro stated, “The state Court of Appeal ruling should foreshadow the expected outcome in federal court. We expect complete victory in the end.” The attorney noted last year that Pastor Mike was “the poster child” of COVID-19 policy abuse and government overreach.

Spiritual Victories
While the church’s legal struggle has seen numerous ups and downs, the spiritual battle has been decidedly victorious, as church attendance swelled amidst the COVID crisis and hundreds of souls have been saved. As the conflict in San Jose made headlines, hundreds of people heard and flocked to Calvary for solid Bible teaching, hope, and spiritual help. “We have baptized over 400 people in the last few months,” Mike shared last year. “Every week we have many people come to Christ.”

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Pastor Mike has watched his congregation grow in faith under persecution. “The people in our church have counted the cost. …They have a faith that has replaced their fear,” he said. Hundreds have come to Christ at CCF San Jose despite government overreach and Christian persecution towards American churches during the pandemic. In this photo, Mike (left) and Assistant Pastor Carson Atherly (far right) enjoy conversations with the church family.

Pastor Mike also watched his flock grow in their faith under the continued persecution. Some even brought extra clothes to church with them in case they were arrested. “The people in our church have counted the cost. …They have a faith that has replaced their fear,” he said earlier, 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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Thousands of believers all across the country have been praying for the case. “I’m so thankful for all those who have been praying for us. We see that. I see it every week, how God is answering the prayers of those in our church,” Pastor Mike said previously. “We have prayer every morning and every night at the church. I would thank all of those people for praying.”

“Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.” Exodus 33:13

Hungry for Hope
Beyond the scope of legal debate, Pastor Mike explained to officials several times that lives were at stake. Pandemic anxiety and fear drove people to search for hope amidst the crisis and isolation. Pastor Mike noted that suicide rates had reached alarming rates in Santa Clara County during the church lockdown.

 

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Pastor Rob McCoy of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Ventura County, CA, opened his doors to in-person worship on May 31, 2020, amidst Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide COVID lockdown, closing churches indefinitely. Bob Tyler, president of AFF, represented Rob and Godspeak in the case, which was eventually dropped. Photo: Godspeak Calvary Chapel/Facebook

Thankfully, pastors who kept their doors open saw hundreds of souls saved. “We are so pleased to have helped so many Calvary Chapel pastors like Mike McClure [and] Rob McCoy,” noted Bob Tyler this week. “Because of their courage, we are seeing an incredible amount of people coming to Christ in California.”

At Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Ventura County, CA, Pastor Rob McCoy began searching for a larger building earlier this year. The congregation there has grown fourfold—from around 450 people to nearly 2,000—since the church reopened in May 2020 despite public health orders. “Four hundred percent growth as a result of people finding in common our belief that the church is essential,” Pastor Rob stated.

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The human need for hope and the essentiality of church has been in the spotlight for the past two years. In the legal petition that CCF San Jose filed last September, the church noted that even county officials recognized the community’s need for hope, 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.”

A Strange Case
One of the baffling things about Santa Clara County officials’ refusal to recant is that the case appears to have been resolved several times already by the highest court in the nation.

In fact, the Supreme Court has issued multiple rulings over the past two years that support Mike’s right to keep his doors open. In November of 2020, the High Court ruled that New York officials could not keep churches closed. A month later, Calvary Chapels in Nevada won back the right to assemble. The ripple effects went nationwide as numerous municipalities and courts allowed churches to reopen.

                  

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Still, California held fast to its oppressive statewide shelter-in-place orders. Weary of the harsh mandates, churches in California sued Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Supreme Court ruled on February 5, 2021, that California had to allow churches to meet in some capacity. Still, Santa Clara County refused to allow churches to open.

Fed up with the unfair local mandates, five churches in Santa Clara County joined together to file a fresh lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court to force county officials to allow them to open their doors after almost a year of closure. On February 26th of last year, 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.

Then, in May of 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a permanent statewide injunction specifically prohibiting California from issuing discriminatory restrictions on churches in future—a landmark victory for all churches in the state, and the rest of the nation.

Yet Santa Clara County leaders refuse to drop their fines against the Calvary Chapel in San Jose. “Even the State of California has paid and settled out [church] cases,” Bob Tyler, AFF president, explained earlier. “The county won’t let it go even though it’s in their best interests to let go and move on.”

So, until Santa Clara drops the remaining fines against CCF San Jose, the case will continue in federal courts. Bob reported that the amount still in question is confusing because the county has fined the church $3.8 million. Though officials agreed at one point to forgive $1 million, that reduction was never made official in writing. The L.A. Times and other agencies reported that Santa Clara County stated recently it would “continue to seek $2.3 million in penalties against the church” for violating other COVID-19 rules that weren’t affected by Monday’s decision.

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Mike was considered “the poster child” of COVID-19 policy abuse and government overreach. Over the past two years, the Supreme Court has issued multiple rulings that support the right to keep church doors open, prompting municipalities and courts nationwide to allow churches to reopen.

Until that time, Bob noted, "This was a critical battle to be won in the much larger conflict. If churches in California did not take a stand [on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020], churches may still have been closed today. It takes the courage of pastors like Mike McClure to stand against dark forces who would love to see religious liberty restricted.” Speaking of AFF’s mission to defend churches, Bob added, “Our goal as a ministry is simple: to defend the First Amendment right to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. …For the LORD loves justice, and does not forsake His saints. Psalm 37:6, 28a

                  

Advocates for Faith and Freedom: faith-freedom.com
Calvary Christian Fellowship: calvarysj.org

                  

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

© 2022 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.