They’re coming for you next: Santa Clara county in California is now being sued by Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastor Mike McClure for using without warrant the GPS data from the cellphones of the church’s members to track their movements without their knowledge.
On August 22, 2023, a lawsuit was filed by Advocates for Faith and Freedom on behalf of Calvary Chapel San Jose against Santa Clara County, California, for utilizing geofencing methods to spy on church members during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, Santa Clara County imposed a $1.2 million fine against the church for not abiding by the State’s and County’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Santa Clara County utilized an investigative method known as geofencing. Geofencing is a technological tool the government uses to track people relative to their location and likely locations. This tool is typically used in police investigations of criminal activity and, in these instances, requires a warrant– which is not always granted.
The lawsuit complaint can be read here [pdf]. As it notes:
Unbeknownst to the public, Defendants embarked on an invasive and warrantless geofencing operation to track residents in the County. The Defendants used this tool under the auspices of researching so-called superspreader events and activities.
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 in time and scope.
The Defendants specifically targeted Calvary Chapel San Jose (“CCSJ”) to demonstrate the church was a large superspreader. The County hoped to use this information in its ongoing state enforcement action against the church. To this day, the County cannot trace one COVID-19 case to the church.
The Defendants put multiple geofences around the church’s property so they could track when and where individuals were on the premises. This operation took place over a year with seemingly no oversight, boundaries, or limitations – meaning the Defendants could track churchgoers in the sanctuary, prayer room, or bathroom.
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, the Defendants are effectively arguing 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, and, if they so choose, they can wield the collected data against said individuals or groups who oppose their orders. This is not just un-American; it is downright Orwellian. [emphasis mine]
The highlighted sentence is the bottom line. Despite imposing a $1.2 million fine against the church for continuing its regular meetings during the COVID lockdowns, the county has yet to document any evidence that the church’s defiance caused COVID to spread at all. If anything, the county’s illegal data-gathering proved it did not, unequivocally.
Santa Clara County’s users manual
Of course, any rational person could have told the county this. The lockdowns did nothing to stop COVID, so there was no reason for the church to stop its Sunday services. In fact, the county’s attempt to forbid religious services (while allowing many other group activities to go on), its totalitarian fining of the church, and its illegal surveillance all strongly suggest that county officials had no interest in stopping COVID, but were actually implementing an anti-religious campaign to suppress religious expression.
The county can deny this accusation, but the evidence tells us it is true. Santa Clara County officials decided to use COVID as an excuse to squelch the religious freeom and first amendment rights of this church and its members. In doing so, it is also attempting to establish a precedent that will allow the government to spy on any citizen for as long as it wants, without warrant and for any reason, and then use that data to condemn that citizen.
Note too that the surveillance was without cause, and could not have gotten a warrant even if the county had tried. The church members were not committing any crimes by going to church. If anything they were simply exercising their first amendment rights, guaranteed from this kind of government interference by the Constitution itself.
The lawsuit demands nominal and compensatory damages as well as attorneys’ fees, claiming the county violated the church’s first and fourth amendment rights. I hope a jury gives the church an award that exceeds the county’s fine by many millions.