Long famous as the core of Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County, California, also earned the distinction in the last three years as perhaps the most aggressive and punitive enforcer of pandemic restrictions in the country. On March 16, 2020, Santa Clara, along with a half-dozen other Bay Area counties, was the first in the nation to announce a shelter in place order, commanding all citizens to remain at home other than for specific activities that the county deemed essential, such as food shopping or medical care. It wasn’t until mid-October — seven months after the initial order — that Sara Cody, the head of the county’s public health department, began allowing indoor gatherings at churches, provided they were no more than 100 people or 25 percent of a facility’s capacity, whichever was fewer. At these limited gatherings face coverings and social distancing were required, and singing was banned.
San Jose’s Calvary Chapel, led by its pastor, Mike McClure, brazenly defied these orders. On May 24, 2020, McClure stated publicly that he would reopen the church the following week, regardless of the health department’s orders, and that he would never close the church again. After two months of isolation, many congregants were teetering toward despair. They were suffering greatly from loneliness, depression, and crippling anxiety — the church was their community, and returning to the normalcy of its rituals and in-person fellowship was vital for their mental, spiritual, and physical well-being.
True to McClure’s word, at the end of May Calvary began holding indoor gatherings, often with hundreds of worshipers, a large portion of whom were without masks, in breach of distancing rules, and singing. This set off a collision between the openly defiant church and the county that culminated in two lawsuits. One, in federal court, in June 2020, by the church against the county, claiming the restrictions violated a list of constitutional rights, and the other, in state court, in October 2020, by the county against the church, for “flagrantly and repeatedly” violating public health orders and nonpayment of fines.