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Calif. County Tracked Church Members during COVID with Cell Phone Data: Court Documents

  • Michael Foust Crosswalk Headlines Contributor
  • Updated Mar 15, 2023
Calif. County Tracked Church Members during COVID with Cell Phone Data: Court Documents

A California county government used the location data on church members’ cell phones in 2020 and 2021 in order to determine if a high-profile congregation, Calvary Chapel, was violating pandemic health restrictions, according to court documents.

Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastor, Mike McClure, have not denied that they defied pandemic health restrictions by meeting, saying that church is as essential as food. The court case involves the question of whether the church must pay nearly $3 million in fines. It has about 3,000 attendees.

Santa Clara County employed a technique known as “geofencing” to determine if the church was breaking the restrictions, according to The Mercury News. Through geofencing, the county took advantage of the location data on church members’ cell phones to track the movement of people within the church. The county said the data remained anonymous.

The Mercury News called the government’s action “extraordinary.” In another example of the county’s effort to gather data on the church, inspection officers parked in the parking lot of a nearby congregation – Central Church of Christ – in order to monitor the activity of church members at Calvary Chapel. Eventually, Central Church of Christ told the officers to go elsewhere. They complied.

“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 the newspaper.

County inspectors made 44 visits to the area between August 2020 and January 2021, the newspaper reported.

“There are all kinds of concerns with geofencing when you talk about your First Amendment rights like freedom of expression or freedom of religion,” Mike Katz-Lacabe, director of the organization Human Rights and Privacy, told the newspaper. “You could conceivably use it to see who goes to a mosque – or discriminate against certain religious groups or minorities.”

McClure, in 2021, said the church had the right to defy the government on the issue.

“It’s said you could go 30 days without food,” he said. “You can go three days without water. But you can't go three seconds without hope. America needs to know the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

McClure said of the church’s violation of local health restrictions: “We have to obey God's Word. And we need to gather together.”

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Tim Robberts

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.