During the COVID-19 pandemic, several religious institutions experienced restrictions on in-person gatherings, due to concerns for public health. Santa Clara County, California’s Calvary Chapel San Jose was one such institution.
Yet, the county’s response to the church’s failure to comply with public health requirements has generated controversy.
County Employed Various Surveillance Measures
David Zweig, an independent journalist, revealed that Santa Clara County employed a variety of surveillance measures on members of Calvary Chapel San Jose. This includes tracking phone location data and conducting stakeouts near the church to observe behavior.
The county’s COVID-19 Business Compliance Unit monitored church events for a total of 51 hours between November 25, 2020 and January 3, 2021, observing everything from Sunday services to baptisms and prayer groups.
Each infringement of the mask rule, social distance policy, and statewide singing ban was recorded by enforcement officials who were compensated $219 per hour.
In addition to physical surveillance, the county employed cellular mobility data from a business called SafeGraph to establish a geofence around the church and monitor the number of daily visitors.
The municipality compensated Stanford Professor of Law Daniel Ho $800 per hour to analyze the data, which showed a daily peak of 1,700 visitors to the church in early 2021.
ForksTalk Newswatch: California county tracked churchgoers’ phone location data to enforce COVID lockdowns: Santa Clara County deployed a variety of surveillance techniques on congregants of a local church that met during COVID-19, including tracking… https://t.co/IzCi7MhoMt pic.twitter.com/AvSuYcUJaD
— ForksTalk (@TalkForks) March 9, 2023
The county maintains that the data is anonymized and are not used to trace people.
Yet, according to a lawsuit made by the church in 2021, numerous worshippers felt intimidated by the county’s surveillance of church sessions. They worried the county would order the police to arrest them for going to church.
After two months of closure, Calvary Chapel reopened its church on May 24, 2020, breaking county regulations.
Churchgoers Sued County for Infringement of Constitutional Rights
The church sued the county for infringing its constitutional rights. In October 2020, the county filed its own lawsuit against the church, alleging it violated public health regulations and failed to pay fines.
In the ongoing action, the county is suing Calvary Chapel for $2.87 million in public health fines. Several individuals denounced Santa Clara County’s response to Calvary Chapel’s disobedience, calling the surveillance and targeting of the church “unconscionable.”
California County Tracked Churchgoers’ Phone Location Data To Enforce #COVID Lockdowns. Santa Clara County forgot that they were to serve the people, not surveil them, coming hare’s-breath close to violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Power corrupts. https://t.co/J8Y2Ft2oCq
— S D Picker /🇺🇸~~ (@PicAxe6) March 9, 2023
Mariah Gondeiro, who works as Calvary Chapel’s legal counsel, told Mercury News, “It is inexcusable how much time and money this county wasted surveilling and persecuting this church when they could have been concentrating on rebuilding the neighborhood.”
The circumstances at Calvary Church San Jose are not exceptional.
Grace Community Church, which also opened in defiance of COVID-19 lockdowns, was awarded $800,000 by the state of California and Los Angeles County in August 2021, following the Supreme Court’s ruling against California’s indoor worship restriction.
Throughout the duration of the pandemic, the topic of religious liberty vs. public health has been difficult.
While many religious organizations have found ways to adapt and continue their activities in a safe manner, some have refused to comply with public health requirements, resulting in legal conflicts and difficulties.