On Tuesday, a California church that had previously been ordered to pay over $1.2 million in fines to the state government filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the local government spied on its worshippers.
Fox News reports that the Calvary Chapel San Jose, led by Pastor Mike McClure, alleges that officials in Santa Clara County utilized the Colorado-based company SafeGraph to engage in “an invasive and warrantless geofencing operation to track residents” without their knowledge. The lawsuit was filed on the church’s behalf by the advocacy group Advocates for Faith & Freedom.
“Geofencing” refers to a location-based tool that is often used by the government to track someone through their cell phone data. In this case, the lawsuit alleges, the local government spied on cell phones located in the vicinity of the church to determine who were regular church-goers.
“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,” the lawsuit states.
“This type of expansive geofencing operation is not only an invasion of privacy, but represents a terrifying precedent if allowed to go unaddressed,” the lawsuit continues. “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.”
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, specifically names County Counsel James Williams and County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody as culprits in the spying operation, asserting that the two officials ratified this “surveillance operation” by providing “specific instructions to monitor the visit patterns of Calvary in comparison to other businesses and organizations within the County.”
Williams had previously defended the use of geofencing, saying back in March that he believed the Calvary Chapel represented a public health hazard during the Chinese Coronavirus pandemic. In April, California Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker ordered the church to pay a fine of $1.2 million, over its violation of Santa Clara County’s mask mandate between the months of November of 2020 and June of 2021.
“Our church respects the rights and privacy of all our members,” said Pastor McClure in a statement. “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.”