A northern California church and its pastor were found in contempt Tuesday for repeatedly defying a court order to stop holding unmasked indoor gatherings and violating Covid-19 health orders, officials said.
"I respect the judge, I understand what the laws are, but there's a bigger law," Mike McClure, head pastor of Calvary Chapel San Jose, said, according to video from NBC Bay Area. The church was fined around $55,000, the station reported.
The Santa Clara County district attorney and the county counsel sued in October after they said the church had been holding indoor services involving hundreds of people not wearing masks, in violation of health orders aimed at slowing the spread of the deadly disease.
In early November a court granted a temporary restraining order, and both the church and McClure repeatedly violated it, the county said in a statement.
Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams said in a statement that the church is putting the whole community at risk.
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More than 20,000 people have died of Covid-19 in California, according to the health department. Like some other parts of the country, cases are rising and prompting dire warnings about hospital capacity.
"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," Williams said.
Attorneys for the church have called the county health restrictions on religious institutions unconstitutional, they plan to appeal and will seek to have the matter moved to federal court, NBC Bay Area reported.
The issue of religious services and public health orders that limit the size and type of gatherings in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus have become a contentious issue, with some critics of the rules claiming they violate liberty.
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McClure said that he's not against masks, and if people want to wear one they should. "But I'm not a policeman; I'm a pastor," he said.
A crowd of supporters gathered outside the San Jose courthouse where Tuesday's proceedings were held, with signs reading"Churches are essential."
The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is principally transmitted by respiratory droplets, like breathing, speaking, singing or coughing and sneezing.
Health experts say that indoor gatherings of people not in the same household, and especially without masks, is a major way that the coronavirus spreads.