When Pastor Mike McClure reopened Calvary Chapel San Jose on May 31, he vowed he would never close the doors again, regardless of California’s pandemic restrictions.
“Germs are important, yes, absolutely,” McClure said. “But only Jesus Christ can save a soul.”
McClure has stood by his vow and is now fighting more than $220,000 in state fines.
Calvary Chapel and more than 1,000 churches throughout California reopened on May 31, the Day of Pentecost, when Peter preached in Jerusalem to more than 3,000 people to form the first Christian church.
When McClure reopened his church, which has more than 1,000 members, the parking lot was filled with Christians anxious to return to live worship.
Calvary and other churches reopened in defiance of Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus restrictions which prohibits churches from meeting – all while restaurants, big-box stores like Walmart, and other “essential” businesses could reopen.
“If Walmart is open and you can go there, they’re essential, and so is the church, but even more so because Walmart doesn’t have a First Amendment right,” McClure told The Epoch Times on Oct. 7.
“I just said, ‘Look, we’re caught in the middle of this political war, but it’s the people that God cares about, so we’re going to do what the Bible says and obey God rather than man. Not so much to defy the governor but to take care of the needs of the people.”
McClure, a former database programmer in Silicon Valley, started Calvary Chapel in 2001. When it reopened May 31, Santa Clara County officials, under orders from Newsom, began imposing fines for every service held.
McClure estimates the fines now total more than $220,000.
Calvary hired non-profit law firm Advocates for Faith and Freedom to challenge the fines, which it deems as “cruel and unusual punishment” and a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
“They have this, what we believe is just an unconstitutional infringement of the religious liberties of the people of the church by imposing fines that are extremely unusual,” Robert Tyler, the general counsel for Advocates for Faith, told The Epoch Times.
Tyler wonders why county officials keep issuing fines instead of requesting a legal injunction to prevent the church from continuing to have services, as other California counties have done.
“It’s interesting that, if the county was so truly concerned about the health and safety of individuals, and believing that the science supports their fines, then they would not only be fining the church, but they would be going to court to seek an injunction against them to prevent them from meeting,” Tyler said.
Tyler says he believes Santa Clara officials fear a public outcry if it tries to close the church, especially after other California churches have garnered national attention by successfully challenging attempts to close.
Los Angeles County attempted to shut down Grace Community Church and hold Pastor John MacArthur in contempt for repeatedly violating its county ordinance prohibiting indoor worship services.
MacArthur challenged the order, and the court issued a preliminary injunction against the church prohibiting it from holding indoor services until the case had been resolved. But a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge overturned the injunction ruling that the church is entitled to a full trial and MacArthur cannot be held in contempt until the case is settled.
Other churches have had similar success challenging state and local shut-down orders.
Tyler said pastors like McClure and MacArthur have said, “You are going to have to take me to jail if you think I’m going to stop from holding church services.’”
Calvary Church has also challenged officials’ requiring that churches maintain lists of attendees to turn over to the government whenever it’s requested.
“These pastors are looking at this, saying, ‘We have religious liberty, we have the right to meet and what you are doing is you are preventing us from gathering together as a community of believers,” Tyler said.
“They are being told on one hand to stay home and watch church services on TV, and the pastors are saying, including Mike McClure, ‘No, we have a biblical instruction and mandate to physically come together to worship.’”
Tyler uses a popular analogy now spreading among pastors throughout the nation to illustrate the importance of protecting religious liberty and the right to hold services unrestricted by the government.
“Attending church services on TV or on online is like watching a campfire on television, you don’t have the effect, you don’t get the heat,” he said.