October 4, 2023

A San Jose church ordered to pay $1.2 million in fines for defying public well being mandates on the peak of the pandemic is suing Santa Clara County, accusing them of placing the non-denominational Christian church and its congregants below unconstitutional surveillance.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court docket in San Francisco by Calvary Chapel and its pastor, Mike McClure, alleges the county “launched into an invasive and warrantless geofencing operation to trace residents.”

“Our church believes within the rights and privateness of all our members,” McClure mentioned in an announcement in regards to the lawsuit.

Geofencing makes use of cellular phone information to trace its customers’ actions. In late 2020 and early 2021, the county used third-party cellphone information to watch worshipers contained in the Hillsdale Avenue church, in accordance with court docket paperwork filed final November. The county’s COVID-19 Enterprise Compliance Unit additionally parked a automotive in a neighboring church’s lot on quite a few events for surveillance functions.

The county’s inspectors made 44 visits to the church between August 2020 and January 2021 and located congregants gathering maskless in giant indoor crowds in defiance of public well being orders as COVID-19 instances skyrocketed, earlier court docket data confirmed. The county’s preliminary orders in the beginning of the pandemic banned all indoor gatherings. However by Could 2020, the church started holding indoor companies with wherever from 100 to 600 maskless attendees.

The county used information from the Denver-based firm SafeGraph to match the dimensions of Calvary Chapel’s companies from March 2020 to 2021 with different gatherings all through the county, in accordance with the November 2022 submitting.

In its lawsuit, the church accuses the county of utilizing geofencing for over a yr with no warrant — an operation they known as “not simply un-American,” however “downright Orwellian.”

“This sort of expansive geofencing operation will not be solely an invasion of privateness however represents a terrifying precedent if allowed to go unaddressed,” the lawsuit acknowledged.

Calvary Chapel alleges the county particularly focused the church due to its “ongoing state enforcement motion the place it sought to weaponize doubtlessly incriminating proof towards Calvary” and that the county has a “historical past of discrimination towards faith and Calvary Chapel San Jose throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The county persistently imposed harsher restrictions on church buildings and fined Calvary hundreds of thousands of {dollars} whereas overlooking different giant gatherings,” the lawsuit mentioned, particularly naming protests, weddings and commencement events as different alleged offenders.

SafeGraph, on the path of the county, put up two geofences across the church — one across the garden and parking tons that stretched to adjoining streets, and the opposite across the church’s buildings, which included the sanctuary, Calvary Christian Academy and ministry housing, in accordance with the lawsuit.

Congregants enter Calvary Chapel in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, Could 31, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Space Information Group) 

The church accuses the county of not narrowing the “search parameters of their geofencing operation,” which they declare allowed the county to assemble information from congregants wherever on the property, together with school rooms, the sanctuary, the nursery and bogs.

Mariah Gondeiro, an lawyer for Advocates for Religion and Freedom, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Chapel, mentioned the swimsuit was filed to make sure the identical measures should not used on one other church.

“Folks of religion ought to by no means have to fret in regards to the authorities spying on them in locations of worship,” Gondeiro mentioned in an announcement.

Former County Counsel James Williams, who took over earlier this yr as county government, beforehand defended the county’s use of geofencing, asserting it isn’t uncommon for enforcement officers to make use of expertise to make sure companies are in compliance. He maintained, nevertheless, that the county didn’t observe people’ cell telephones on the church.

In an announcement to the Mercury Information, the county mentioned  they “didn’t use cellular phone surveillance to trace anybody at Calvary Chapel throughout the pandemic.”

“What the allegations take out of context is the evaluation of third-party, commercially out there mixture information that was used to answer Calvary’s personal allegations in a lawsuit that Calvary itself filed,” the county acknowledged.

In its assertion, the county additionally decried Calvary Chapel’s allegations that it discriminated towards the church due to its spiritual beliefs, stating that “in contrast to the state of California or many different jurisdictions, the county’s well being officer by no means issued any restrictions particular to church buildings or spiritual establishments in anyway.”

“The county’s well being officer protected the general public throughout the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, within the time earlier than widespread vaccination, by implementing public well being measures that had been uniform and an identical in accordance with the well being dangers of the exercise occurring, no matter their objective or kind of facility.”