San Jose church sues Santa Clara County alleging electronic surveillance

A San Jose church ordered to pay $1.2 million in fines for defying public health mandates at the height of the pandemic is suing Santa Clara County, accusing them of putting the non-denominational Christian church and its congregants under unconstitutional surveillance.

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

“Our church believes in the rights and privacy of all our members,” McClure said in a statement about the lawsuit.

Geofencing uses cell phone data to track its users’ movements. In late 2020 and early 2021, the county used third-party phone data to monitor worshipers inside the Hillsdale Avenue church, according to court documents filed last November. The county’s COVID-19 Business Compliance Unit also parked a car in a neighboring church’s lot on numerous occasions for surveillance purposes.

The county’s inspectors made 44 visits to the church between August 2020 and January 2021 and found congregants gathering maskless in large indoor crowds in defiance of public health orders as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, previous court records showed. The county’s initial orders at the start of the pandemic banned all indoor gatherings. But by May 2020, the church began holding indoor services with anywhere from 100 to 600 maskless attendees.

The county used data from the Denver-based company SafeGraph to compare the size of Calvary Chapel’s services from March 2020 to 2021 with other gatherings throughout the county, according to the November 2022 filing.

In its lawsuit, the church accuses the county of using geofencing for over a year without a warrant — an operation they called “not just un-American,” but “downright Orwellian.”

“This type of expansive geofencing operation is not only an invasion of privacy but represents a terrifying precedent if allowed to go unaddressed,” the lawsuit stated.

Calvary Chapel alleges the county specifically targeted the church because of its “ongoing state enforcement action where it sought to weaponize potentially incriminating evidence against Calvary” and that the county has a “history of discrimination against religion and Calvary Chapel San Jose during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The county consistently imposed harsher restrictions on churches and fined Calvary millions of dollars while overlooking other large gatherings,” the lawsuit said, specifically naming protests, weddings and graduation parties as other alleged offenders.

SafeGraph, at the direction of the county, put up two geofences around the church — one around the lawn and parking lots that stretched to adjacent streets, and the other around the church’s buildings, which included the sanctuary, Calvary Christian Academy and ministry housing, according to the lawsuit.

Congregants enter Calvary Chapel in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Congregants enter Calvary Chapel in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

The church accuses the county of not narrowing the “search parameters of their geofencing operation,” which they claim allowed the county to gather data from congregants anywhere on the property, including classrooms, the sanctuary, the nursery and bathrooms.

Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Chapel, said the suit was filed to ensure the same measures are not used on another church.

“People of faith should never have to worry about the government spying on them in places of worship,” Gondeiro said in a statement.

Former County Counsel James Williams, who took over earlier this year as county executive, previously defended the county’s use of geofencing, asserting it isn’t unusual for enforcement officials to use technology to ensure businesses are in compliance. He maintained, however, that the county did not track individuals’ cell phones at the church.

In a statement to the Mercury News, the county said  they “did not use cell phone surveillance to track anyone at Calvary Chapel during the pandemic.”

“What the allegations take out of context is the 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,” the county stated.

In its statement, the county also decried Calvary Chapel’s allegations that it discriminated against the church because of its religious beliefs, stating that “unlike the state of California or many other jurisdictions, the county’s health officer never issued any restrictions specific to churches or religious institutions whatsoever.”

“The county’s health officer protected the public during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the time before widespread vaccination, by implementing public health measures that were uniform and identical according to the health risks of the activity occurring, regardless of their purpose or type of facility.”

Source link

𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
𝗣𝗹𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗹 𝗮𝘁

Similar Posts