‘Downright Orwellian’: San Jose church that was fined $1.2 million over violating COVID mandates sues county over surveillance

Calvary Chapel wants to make sure this doesn’t happen to another church

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 it 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.

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 it “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.”

The county and Calvary Church have been locked in a legal battle since 2020 over public health rules. In 2020, the church sued the county, arguing that COVID-19 mandates violated its religious freedoms. In response, the county sued the church, arguing that they owed $2.87 million in fines for violating public health orders. In November 2020, a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the church for gathering despite the public health rules.

Since then, the two parties have been engaged in several other back-and-forth legal tussles over the fines in local, state and federal courts.

An April ruling by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker ordering the church to pay $1.2 million in fines is the latest development in the saga. Though the county sought nearly $3 million in fines, the judge reduced the fine to a specific period — November 2020 to June 2021– when the church was not following the county’s mask policy.

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

California Appeals Court Rejects COVID-19 Fines for Church

A California church that defied safety regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic by holding large religious services won’t have to pay about $200,000 in fines, a state appeals court ruled.

Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastors were held in contempt of court and fined in 2020 and 2021 for violating state and county limits on indoor public gatherings. The rules were aimed at preventing the spread through close contract of the virus, which has caused more than 10 million confirmed cases and more than 93,500 deaths since the pandemic began in mid-2020, according to state public health figures.

But on Monday, California’s 6th District Court of Appeal reversed those lower court decisions, citing a May 2020 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2021 that a ban by Gov. Gavin Newsom on indoor worship services in counties where COVID-19 was surging violated freedom of religion.

The decision by a newly conservative majority court came less than a year after the high court previously ruled the ban was justified on health and safety grounds.

The appellate court noted that the restrictions on indoor gatherings also applied to secular gatherings but were stricter for worship services than for secular activities such as going to grocery stores.

The ruling “is a great win for the sake of liberty and displays the justification for the courage shown by this church” and its pastors, Robert Tyler, a lawyer for the church, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Despite the ruling, Santa Clara County said it will continue to seek $2.3 million in penalties against the church for violating other COVID-19 rules that weren’t affected by the decision, such as requiring face masks during services in late 2020.

Click here to read the full article at AP News

California Dems prepare for crackdown on churches

church-pewChristians across the nation are expressing grave concerns over a proposed California law that would outlaw speech dealing with certain issues – including homosexuality and gender identity – by clergy members, licensed counselors and others.

Assembly Bill 2943, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low, would utilize the state’s existing consumer fraud statute to classify gay conversion therapy as a fraudulent practice.

State senators passed the legislation last Thursday and the Assembly is poised to take up a final vote before the bill is sent to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s office.

“The faith community, like anyone else, needs to evolve with the times,” Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi said during debate on the legislation. “The science is clear. The claim that the First Amendment can be used as a defense for promoting fraudulent conduct is a fallacious argument.”

Dr. Paul Chappell, the pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church and the president of West Coast Baptist College, said there is a groundswell of opposition rising up among Christians and conservatives to the Assembly bill. …

Click here to read the full article from Fox News