EXCLUSIVE – A California church ordered to pay $1.2 million in fines for violating COVID-19 lockdown measures filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging the local government unconstitutionally spied and tracked Christian worshipers through secretive "geofencing" using congregants' cell phone data.
Calvary Chapel San Jose and Pastor Mike McClure accuse Santa Clara County and the Colorado-based data company SafeGraph of embarking "on an invasive and warrantless geofencing operation to track residents" unbeknownst to the public, according to the lawsuit filed by Advocates for Faith & Freedom.
The defendants are accused of using geofencing, a location-based tool used by the government to track individuals through their cellphone data, around Calvary Chapel San Jose property so they could see when and where worshippers 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," the complaint says.
"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."
Reached for comment Tuesday about the suit, Santa Clara County referred Fox News Digital to its prior comments in March.
Officials had condemned a story published on Substack by journalist David Zweig that cited court documents in outlining how the county allegedly took various actions — watching church activities through a neighboring property's chain-link fence, walking in on church gatherings like Bible study and tracking churchgoers' cellular mobility data — to surveil Calvary.
"The recent story by David Zweig has at its core false assertions and does not reflect an understanding of basic facts of the county’s public health orders or enforcement program," Santa Clara County told Fox News Digital in March, reacting to the report.
The new lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, further alleges that County Counsel James Williams and County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody ratified the "surveillance operation" targeting the church, providing "specific instructions to monitor the visit patterns of Calvary in comparison to other businesses and organizations within the County."
"The County sought to weaponize the location data against Calvary in their ongoing lawsuit filed in the Santa Clara County Superior Court, where they seek to collect millions from the church for violating COVID-19 public health orders," the complaint says.
SafeGraph Senior Vice President of Operations Nicole Berger told Fox News Digital that the data company "was not engaged by Santa Clara County, or any other governmental entity, to provide targeted geofencing or geolocation tracking services for law enforcement or regulatory enforcement purposes, nor do we provide such information through our data services."
"While many data companies do sell sensitive information about individual people, including precise movement records, SafeGraph is not one of them," Berger said in an email. "SafeGraph does not collect or provide information about individual people (not even pseudonymous or device-level cell phone location data). SafeGraph’s data products provide historical information about physical locations, such as the address, brand, and operating hours of a business at a particular location."
"Further, SafeGraph has no direct involvement in or knowledge of the dispute between Santa Clara County and Calvary Chapel church. Based on public reporting, it is SafeGraph’s understanding that our data was not used - nor was it functionally capable of being used - as part of Santa Clara’s alleged proactive compliance oversight activities; rather, our data was used only in litigation proceedings after Santa Clara commenced an enforcement action against Calvary Chapel and only in response to specific factual allegations raised by Calvary Chapel in the course of the litigation," Berger wrote. "SafeGraph had no prior knowledge of, and did not approve, this use of our data. Using the data in this way is not authorized and against SafeGraph’s terms of service. The expert witness that used the SafeGraph data on behalf of Santa Clara County did so against SafeGraph’s terms of service and in direct violation of the strict non-commercial research agreement under which the data was provided."
Williams has defended the geofencing operation in the past, telling The Mercury News in March that Calvary Chapel posed a unique public health hazard during the pandemic, forcing the county to respond. In April, California Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker ruled the church should pay $1.2 million for violating Santa Clara County's mask mandate between November 2020 and June 2021. The court found that the county's face covering requirement was "neutral and generally applicable" to all similarly situated entities in the county.
The complaint says geofencing, which uses mapping software and is reliant on location data, "involves constructing a virtual bound around a geographic area using machine learning and identifying all users present within that area during a given time window."
The lawsuit alleges the county never obtained a warrant in violation of congregants' Fourth Amendment rights.
"CCSJ is also a sacred place where congregants go to worship God in an intimate setting. Plaintiffs do not go with the expectation that they will be covertly surveilled by the government," the complaint says.
The lawsuit also alleges First Amendment violations, arguing the "geofencing operation was not neutral and generally applicable because not all businesses and entities were subject to surveillance."
It charges the defendants "ultimately demonstrated hostility towards religion" for driving the operation in response to the church’s refusal to comply with county orders restricting worship. The suit seeks nominal damages, compensatory damages in an amount to be proven at trial and attorneys’ fees.
"People of faith should never have to worry about the government spying on them in places of worship," Mariah Gondeiro, vice president and legal counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, said in a statement to Fox News Digital.
"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 Fourth 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."
"Our church respects the rights and privacy of all our members," McClure added. "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."