'A Terrifying Precedent': Calvary Chapel Sues CA County for Tracking Attendance of Churchgoers
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A San Jose, California church still locked in a years-long legal battle with Santa Clara County officials over $1.2 million in fines for violating COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, alleges the county government conducted unconstitutional surveillance and tracked its members on the church's property using their cell phones.
The federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, on behalf of Calvary Chapel and its Pastor Mike McClure by attorneys with the nonprofit Advocates for Faith and Freedom claims the county and Denver-based data company SafeGraph "embarked on an invasive and warrantless geofencing operation to track residents in the County."
"Our church believes in the rights and privacy of all our members," Pastor McClure said in a statement to CBN News. "We are not just standing up for the rights of our church family; we are standing up for the rights of religious people across this country."
The complaint alleges the county and the company violated the Fourth Amendment protecting individuals' privacy, as well as the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. It also accuses the county of seeking "to punish Calvary for exercising their religious rights in violation of the County's draconian orders," according to Bloomberg Law.
"Geofencing is a location-based tool used by the government to track individuals through their cell phone data. This tool is generally used in police investigations of criminal activity and requires the government to obtain a warrant which is limited by time and scope," according to court documents.
The defendants are accused of targeting Calvary Chapel, using the geofencing tool without a warrant in an effort to obtain information in its ongoing state enforcement action against the church. Private businesses and other venues in the county were not surveilled during the pandemic, court documents explained.
"At the behest of the County, SafeGraph put two geofences around CCSJ and surveilled the churchgoers within the church premises for over a year during the COVID-19 pandemic," the lawsuit said.
"This operation took place over a year with seemingly no oversight, boundaries, or limitations – meaning Defendants could track churchgoers in the sanctuary, prayer room, or bathroom," the complaint said.
In the lawsuit, Calvary alleges, "This type of expansive geofencing operation is not only an invasion of privacy but represents a terrifying precedent if allowed to go unaddressed. As it stands, Defendants assert that, as long as they call it research, any level of government can target and spy on any individual or group at any time for any duration. The government can then wield any collected data against said individuals or groups who oppose their orders."
"This is not just un-American; it is downright Orwellian," the complaint added.
Former County Counsel James Williams, who is now a county executive, previously defended the county's use of geofencing, the Mercury News reported in March. He maintained, however, that the county did not track individuals' cell phones at the church.
"Tracking congregants in and out of church is something we would expect in China. The fact that county officials would use these tactics should be a wakeup call to every American who values their own freedom to worship, speak, or attend gatherings of any ideological nature," Robert Tyler, president of Advocates for Faith and Freedom said in a statement to CBN News. "Failure to embrace the regime in charge will ruin your social credit score."
Mariah Gondeiro, the church's attorney, called the county's actions "an invasion of privacy" and "represents a terrifying precedent" for Christians in America.
"People of faith should never have to worry about the government spying on them in places of worship," Gondeiro said.
CBN News reached out to the Santa Clara County Counsel's Office and to SafeGraph for comment. The county replied saying, "The allegations in the complaint are false and we are confident the County will prevail in court. To be clear, the County did not use cell phone surveillance to track anyone at Calvary Chapel during the pandemic. The allegations take out of context analysis of third-party, commercially available aggregate data that was used to respond to Calvary's own allegations in a lawsuit that Calvary itself filed."
Meanwhile, on Aug. 14, California's 6th District Court of Appeals handed down its decision, rejecting $200,000 in COVID fines against Calvary Chapel and its pastors.
The church had been fined in 2020 and 2021 for violating state and county limit rules for indoor gatherings.
The appeals court reversed those lower court decisions, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling during the pandemic that determined a ban by Gov. Gavin Newsom on indoor worship services violated freedom of religion, according to KNTV.
For almost three years, the Calvary Chapel and Santa Clara County have fought legal battles in local, state, and federal courts over the fines.
Last April, a county judge ordered the church to pay $1.2 million in fines for the period from November 2020 to June 2021 when the church was not following the county's mask policy, according to Mercury News.
Calvary has said it will appeal that ruling.
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