California church sues county for allegedly spying on members during pandemic shutdown

Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose speaks to his congregation on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, during an in-person service.
Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose speaks to his congregation on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, during an in-person service. | Screenshot: Facebook/Calvary Chapel

A Northern California church is suing county officials for allegedly spying on its members during the state’s coronavirus shutdown, accusations that county officials deny.  

Attorneys with Advocates for Faith and Freedom filed the lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Chapel San Jose against Santa Clara County for utilizing what they say was a form of geo-tracking while the church remained open under COVID-19 pandemic restriction.

At the height of the pandemic, the church — now known as Calvary Christian Fellowship (CCF) — and Pastor Mike McClure defied social distancing orders and reopened the church. Both were later held in contempt of court and fined for violating a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction for holding in-person worship services in 2020 and 2021.

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The complaint contends that the "geofencing operation was not neutral and generally applicable because not all businesses and entities were subject to surveillance." Additionally, the county never obtained a warrant to conduct such operations on church members, the court filing maintains.

In a statement Wednesday, McClure said the suit isn’t just for his own congregation but for churches across America.

“Our church believes in the rights and privacy of all our members,” McClure said. “We are not just standing up for the rights of our church family; we are standing up for the rights of religious people across this country.”

"People of faith should never have to worry about the government spying on them in places of worship,” said Mariah Gondeiro, vice president and legal counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom. “We are standing up for people of all faiths across the country who have been, and continue to be, targeted by the government. 

“This invasion of privacy and targeting violates the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and represents a terrifying precedent if allowed to go unaddressed. It is time to hold Santa Clara County accountable for violating the rights of Calvary Chapel members."

In a statement provided to The Christian Post earlier this year, county officials pushed back on claims that enforcement agents spied on churchgoers, calling them “false assertions” that do “not reflect an understanding of basic facts of the County’s public health orders or enforcement program.”

A March report on Substack from journalist David Zweig cited court documents to state a surveillance operation of the church is alleged to have begun in August 2020 and included "stakeouts, forced in-person monitoring of prayer groups and other intimate activities" and  tracking "the cellular mobility data of churchgoers.”

"To be clear, the County did not use cell phone surveillance to track anyone at Calvary Chapel during the pandemic," a county spokesperson told CP at the time. "[Zweig’s] article cites an after-the-fact analysis of third-party, commercially available aggregate data, done for litigation purposes in order to respond to Calvary’s own allegations in a lawsuit that Calvary itself filed.”

In a statement provided to The Christian Broadcasting Network, a county spokesperson said that officials are "confident" that the county will "prevail" in court. 

Santa Clara County became the first county in the country to issue a shelter-in-place order in March 2020. Residents were ordered to stay in their homes except for essential activities such as buying food or seeking medical treatment.

Last August, a three-judge panel on California's 6th District Court of Appeals ruled CCF does not have to pay over $200,000 in fines for violating gathering restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The panel reversed a Dec. 17, 2020, order requiring the church to pay $33,000 for violating Santa Clara County's Nov. 2, 2020, restraining order forbidding the church from holding indoor gatherings with more than 100 people.

The restraining order was issued after the church failed to abide by guidelines on Oct. 13 of that year.

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.

In November 2020, Pastor McClure told his congregation, “There are people who are accusing us that we are trying to kill people, that we don’t care about people. That’s the farthest thing from the truth.”

About 600 people had been attending services in a space that has the capacity to hold 1,900 people, while the county limited indoor gatherings to 100 people at the time.

The church, McClure said, “cares about the whole body.” The pastor said he was not forcing anyone to come to church in person. “I don’t want to break the law, but … I’m called to preach the Gospel,” he explained.

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