A county in California facing a lawsuit from a local church for allegedly violating constitutional rights with its punitive COVID-19 restrictions is clapping back as its reported surveillance of the house of worship gains publicity.
“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,” the County of Santa Clara, located in Silicon Valley, said in a statement to Fox News Digital.
The statement followed a new report detailing a sophisticated and extensive “spy operation” targeting San Jose’s Calvary Chapel, with which the county is involved in ongoing litigation.
The report, published on Substack by journalist David Zweig, cited court documents in outlining how the county took various actions – such as 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, monitoring for compliance with public health mandates.
Santa Clara became known for its rigid pandemic-era directives as early as March 2020, when it along with other Bay Area counties became the first in the country to announce a shelter in place order, ordering residents to stay home except for specific activities deemed essential by government officials.
Later that year, the county’s public health department began allowing indoor gatherings at churches as long as they were limited to 100 people or 25% of a facility’s capacity, whichever was fewer. Face coverings and social distancing were required, and singing was banned.
As early as May 2020, however, Calvary Chapel, led by its pastor, Mike McClure, defied the county’s public health mandates, holding indoor gatherings not in accordance with the mandatory limitations. Calvary is now facing more than $2 million in fines levied by the county for keeping its doors open during the pandemic against county orders.
This clash led to a legal battle between the two sides. Calvary has sued the county, arguing it violated the First Amendment and the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment. The county in turn sued Calvary for “flagrantly and repeatedly” violating public health orders and nonpayment of fines. Both cases are still in litigation.
In his report, Zweig reported how “county enforcement officers” conducted extensive surveillance on Calvary and its churchgoers to check for compliance with the pandemic lockdown measures. These measures reportedly included stakeouts and entering the building during sometimes private, intimate gatherings such as prayer groups. Another technique was more tech savvy.
“The Santa Clara County health department used cellular mobility data to track how many people were attending Calvary Chapel on any given day,” wrote Zweig. “I found this information in a remarkable declaration amid the legal documents, from a professor at Stanford Law School named Daniel Ho. A research team, led by Ho, was hired to analyze the data for Santa Clara County health officers.”
However, Santa Clara County denied tracking churchgoers’ movements in order to monitor compliance with public health orders.
“To be clear, the county did not use cellphone surveillance to track anyone at Calvary Chapel during the pandemic,” the county told Fox News Digital. “The 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.”
Another apparent issue with the county’s conduct was its apparent double standard for imposing lockdown measures.
In September 2020, for example, Santa Clara churches still couldn’t hold indoor gatherings, but shopping malls could operate at 50% capacity. The following month, stores had no capacity limits and museums could run at 50%, while churches were allowed a maximum of either 100 people or 25% capacity.
Such incongruity regarding pandemic lockdown measures was also an issue in New York, where then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed attendance limits on religious services, triggering a lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court blocked Cuomo from enforcing the order.
“It is time – past time – to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his opinion for the case.
In the case of Santa Clara, however, the county rejected the notion that it targeted places of worship.
“Unlike the state of California or many other jurisdictions, the county’s health officer never issued any restrictions specific to churches or religious institutions whatsoever,” the county told Fox News Digital. “The county’s health officer protected the public during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the time before widespread vaccination, by implementing public health measures that were uniform and identical according to the health risks of the activity occurring, regardless of their purpose or type of facility. The article is factually wrong on this key point too.”
In October 2020, the county issued an order limiting indoor gatherings to 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer, adding, “This includes movie theaters, churches, cultural ceremonies.”
Then in February 2021, Santa Clara attempted unsuccessfully to argue it wasn’t subject to a Supreme Court ruling that lifted California’s ban on indoor religious services because it prohibited all indoor gatherings – regardless of whether they’re related to religion – rather than specifically indoor religious services.
“We don’t litigate our cases in public, but rather in court,” the county told Fox News Digital. “The county is proud of its public health orders, enforcement, and overall response, which saved thousands of lives, resulting in one of the lowest death rates of any major county in the United States.”
A study from Johns Hopkins University last year stated that lockdowns “imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted” before concluding, “Lockdown policies are ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument.”
Calvary Chapel didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.