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CA county spied on churchgoers, tracked cell data to enforce COVID lockdowns, issue fines

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
March 09, 2023

Santa Clara County, California spied on churchgoers during the COVID-19 pandemic, tracking their phone location data and even parking near a local church to physically observe and record attendees’ behavior, court documents recently revealed.

According to independent journalist David Zweig, the Santa Clara County COVID-19 Business Compliance Unit sent inspectors to monitor church activities of Calvary Chapel San Jose from November 25, 2020 through January 3, 2021.

The inspectors conducted stakeouts near the church for 51 hours, observing Sunday services, baptisms, and prayer groups, according to Zweig. Enforcement officers were paid $219 an hour to record church activities, documenting violations of social distancing, the mask mandate and California’s state-wide singing ban.

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The county government also established a geofence around the church by using cellular mobility data. By doing so, the county was able to monitor how many people visited the church every day, Zweig reported. The county then paid Stanford Law Professor Daniel Ho $800 an hour to go through the data.  

“It is unconscionable how much time and money this county has spent surveilling and targeting this church when they should be focused on rebuilding the community,” Calvary Chapel attorney Mariah Gondeiro told Mercury News.

James Williams, who represents the county, told Mercury News that the cellular data was not used to track individuals.

Attorneys for Calvary Chapel filed a complaint in 2021 against Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom and multiple officials in the county, explaining that multiple congregants “expressed to Pastor McClure they felt intimidated by the County enforcement officers’ persistent surveillance of church services” and “believed the County was going to order the police to arrest them for attending church.”

Calvary Chapel closed for two months at the beginning of the pandemic before re-opening on May 24, 2020. The move was made in defiance of county mandates. The church ultimately sued the county, alleging the government violated its constitutional rights. The county responded with its own lawsuit, and is currently demanding $2.87 million in fines for violating public health regulations.