Few in the Bay Area have defied local health ordinances during the COVID-19 pandemic as openly and fervently as San Jose Senior Pastor Mike McClure.
Worshipers have flocked by the hundreds to his weekly indoor services at Calvary Chapel San Jose, most without masks, despite the Santa Clara County Public Health Order banning these types of indoor gatherings. McClure also held rallies on the steps of the local courthouse after being charged with contempt of court for continuing these services and racked up nearly $ 2 million in fines in the process.
And at least twice, according to the county attorney’s office, a judge has convicted McClure and Calvary Chapel of contempt of court for defying those health orders.
“This entity does not respect these guarantees, does not take care of our community and its own congregation,” said James R. Williams, Santa Clara County lawyer.
Williams also said that so far none of those penalties have been paid.
While McClure and his staff got around the rules, federal records show Calvary Chapel San Jose raised $ 340,400 in forgivable loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), as part of the COVID CARES ACT relief program adopted last year. This apparent contradiction angered county officials who fought McClure and Calvary Chapel in court.
“It is disappointing that on the one hand they choose to voluntarily put the safety of people at risk during this time of crisis in our community, and on the other hand, [seek] taxpayer support for their operations, ”said Williams. “It’s about protecting our community. And it’s not just the gathering inside. There is no face mask, no social distancing, no compliance (at Calvary Chapel) with any of the very basic protocols that apply to everyone in our community, ”said Williams.
An analysis of millions of SBA records giving details of P3 loan data by the NBC Bay Area investigation unit revealed that Calvary Chapel San Jose is one of at least a dozen places of worship in California who took taxpayer money while ignoring county health orders. In total, those dozens of religious organizations accepted $ 5,929,602 in P3 money supported by taxpayers, according to federal records.
- The Archdiocese of San Francisco, whose records show it accepted $ 1,876,500 in PPP money and the San Francisco city attorney’s office has said it has repeatedly violated local health ordinances. In one case, church officials reportedly sanctioned a marriage last summer at Saints Peter and Paul Church where guests entered through an underground car park. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the church’s pastor said the arrangements were not meant to hide the wedding.
- Then there’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, where last month the Archbishop publicly declared that the church had violated health ordinances by holding an indoor mass because of a potential security threat to the city. proximity. According to SBA records, St. Mary’s directly received $ 320,405 in PPP forgivable loan.
- The Spring Hills Community Church in Santa Rosa, which Sonoma County health officials say has violated COVID-19 health rules on numerous occasions. Records show Spring Hills accepted $ 186,300 in federal COVID relief money.
- South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, a church that continued to meet indoors without a mask requirement. South Bay United Pentecostal took $ 109,000 in P3 money according to SBA federal records. The Church has sued California Governor Gavin Newsome over health restrictions and the case has gone to the United States Supreme Court. In May 2020, the United States Supreme Court refused a request for an emergency injunction against Governor Newsom to prevent the state from implementing restrictions on indoor gatherings.
- Then in February 2021, the High Court partially ruled in favor of South Bay United Pentecostal but allowed Governor Newsom and the state to continue to demand certain restrictions on church gatherings inside.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that California churches can, in fact, hold gatherings indoors, but the state could cap those gatherings at 25% of capacity and ban singing and chanting during those services. .
These organizations did not respond before the NBC Bay Area deadline to comment on whether it was hypocritical to accept P3 funds from taxpayers while defying local health authorities.
In an article written on his website, however, Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore J. Cordileone praised the February Supreme Court ruling.
“As Christians we are members of a Church, which literally means an assembly of people coming together to worship God,” Archbishop Cordileone wrote. “It’s our identity; it is in our very nature to come together in person to give honor and glory to God. And especially as Catholics, we know that our worship cannot be broadcast live: there is no way to give Communion, or any of the other sacraments via the Internet. “
Another church, Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena, also filed a similar injunction request with the United States Supreme Court on behalf of itself and other California churches in 2020. Federal records show Harvest Rock of Pasadena received $ 311,241 in P3 money.
NBC Bay Area’s analysis of detailed PPP data came after a U.S. District Court ordered the release of those detailed records in December 2020, after a trial by NBC News, the Washington Post and the Center for Public Integrity was filed against the US Small Business Administration demanding the documents that news organizations have declared public.
Sifting through millions of PPP files in the United States, the NBC Bay Area investigative unit found that at least 4,982 religious organizations in California, including churches, mosques, synagogues, and others, received $ 608,438,703.60 in P3 loans designed to keep small businesses afloat during the pandemic.
In an editorial last May in the Washington Post, a trio of constitutional law professors at Cornell University and the University of Virginia argued that churches were making conflicting statements arguing that they were entitled to P3 funds while saying they should be exempt from certain health ordinances linked to the pandemic.
“These two striking developments reveal the confused state of our constitutional rules regarding the relationship between government and religion,” wrote Professors Nelson Tebbe, Micah J. Schwartzman and Richard Schragger. “On the one hand, churches argue that the First Amendment’s free exercise clause entitles them to special exemptions from stay-at-home orders. On the other hand, they also claim that churches can and should be treated as non-religious organizations when it comes to taxpayer funding. “
They said it was the first time in the country’s history that taxpayers subsidized the salaries of clergy and church officials.
“Our fundamental concern in this article was that churches were making conflicting constitutional claims in the context of the pandemic,” Tebbe said. “On the one hand, the churches were arguing for equal treatment when it comes to funding, especially the P3 funding provided by the federal government to small businesses. And on the other hand, they were arguing for special exemptions from COVID regulations that limited the size of gatherings. “
When NBC Bay Area met Calvary Chapel Senior Pastor Mike McClure at a rally at the Santa Clara County Courthouse attended by dozens of supporters, few wearing masks or social distancing, the pastor defended the actions of his church.
“I don’t want to take this money,” McClure said. “It’s your money, my money, our grandchildren’s money. I don’t agree with that. But at the same time, I have to pay all of our employees. And it wasn’t the church that took it, it was our school.
When asked directly if, as the Washington Post’s headline Op-Ed claimed, it was hypocritical for churches to defy government health ordinances while receiving government relief money, McClure embezzled question and denied fighting Santa Clara County even while standing in court where he attended a contempt hearing.
“You said I was fighting the government. I am not fighting against anyone. I want to help the government. I am a chaplain. I am not fighting against anyone. You make me sound crazy, ”McClure said.
“I think even churches are subject to government regulation, if that regulation is even enforced and justifiable,” said the Honorable Michael McConnell, former United States Court of Appeals Judge for the Tenth Circuit and now Director. of the Stanford Center for Constitutional Law and senior executive. Stanford Hoover Institution Fellow.
“The right to assemble and pray in accordance with conscience is one of the most precious rights of Americans,” Justice McConnell said. “And so, while the government is certainly allowed to make rational decisions about public health risks, it cannot do so on the basis of a presumption that religious worship is unimportant.”
“Thus, churches have every constitutional right to share available benefits in a neutral manner. They can’t get money because they’re churches and they can’t be favored to get money because they’re churches, ”Justice McConnell said.
“But if they (religious institutions) do precisely what secular entities do and receive money, then, for example, if they employ janitors and secretaries and do the very things that money is supposed to do, there’s no reason they shouldn’t receive a grant on a neutral basis, ”Justice McConnell said.
“Likewise, they are subject to regulation,” Justice McConnell said.
When asked if this was a contradiction on the part of those churches defying local government COVID health ordinances to also accept COVID relief money from the federal government, Judge McConnell was brief .
“Well, let’s just be happy that hypocrisy isn’t a crime in this country, or we would all be in jail,” the judge said.