California County Tracked Churchgoers’ Phone Location Data To Enforce COVID Lockdowns

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Santa Clara County deployed a variety of surveillance techniques on congregants of a local church that met during COVID-19, including tracking phone location data and parking a car in a nearby lot to observe behavior, court documents reported by independent journalist David Zweig reveal.

Inspectors from the county’s COVID-19 Business Compliance Unit spent a total of 51 hours conducting stakeouts near Calvary Chapel San Jose between November 25, 2020 and January 3, 2021, observing everything from Sunday services to baptisms and prayer groups, Zweig reported. Enforcement officers, who were paid $219 an hour, wrote in great detail about church activities, noting each violation of the mask mandate, social distancing policy and state-wide ban on singing.

Using cellular mobility data from a company called SafeGraph, which aggregates location data from 47 million devices nationwide to show movement patterns, the county also set up a geofence around the church building to track how many people visited each day, documents obtained by Zweig show. The county paid Stanford Law Professor Daniel Ho $800 an hour to analyze the data, determining there was a daily peak of 1,700 people visiting in early 2021. (RELATED: Politicians, Pastors Demand Apology From City After Cop Allegedly Felt Pressured To Resign Over Religious Post)

WASHINGTON – NOVEMBER 30: Pro-life activist Jason Hershey reads from a bible as he protests in front of the U.S. Supreme Court with the group Bound for Life November 30, 2005 in Washington, DC. The highest court in the U.S. is hearing the first case on abortion rights since Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in.. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

County Counsel James Williams told Mercury News that the data is anonymized and not used to track the cellphones of individuals.

“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,” Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney for Calvary Chapel, told Mercury News.

A complaint filed by the church in 2021 says that several 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 re-opened its church on May 24, 2020 after two months of being closed, defying the county’s mandates. It sued the county for violating its constitutional rights, which the county followed with its own lawsuit against the church in October 2020, arguing the church violated public health orders and failed to pay fines. The county is currently seeking $2.87 million in public health fines from Calvary Chapel in the ongoing lawsuit.

In August 2021, Grace Community Church, which also opened in defiance of the COVID-19 lockdown, secured a $800,000 settlement from the state of California and Los Angeles County after the Supreme Court ruled against California’s indoor worship ban.

Santa Clara County and County Counsel James R. Williams did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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