A California county facing a local church’s lawsuit alleging it violated constitutional rights with punitive COVID-19 restrictions is drawing applause as the vigilance of the house of worship gains publicity.
“David Zweig’s latest story is based on false assertions and does not reflect an understanding of the basic facts of the county’s public health mandate or enforcement program,” Santa Clara County, based in Silicon Valley, said in a statement to Fox. Digital News.
The statement followed a new report detailing a sophisticated and widespread “espionage operation” targeting St. Joseph’s Calvary Chapel, with which the county is involved in ongoing litigation.
Reporter David Zweig’s report published on Substack cited court documents to explain how the county took various actions, such as watching church activities through the chain-link fence of a neighboring property, walking into church meetings such as Bible study, and monitoring church members’ cells. mobility data – to take care of Calvary, to monitor compliance with public health orders.
Santa Clara became known for its strict pandemic-era directives in March 2020, when it joined other Bay Area counties in declaring the country’s first shelter-in-place order, ordering residents to stay home except for specific activities deemed essential. government officials.
Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose speaks during a press conference outside Santa Clara Superior Court in downtown San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
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That same year, the county’s public health department began allowing indoor meetings in churches, as long as they were limited to 100 people or 25% of a facility’s capacity. Face coverings and social distancing were required, and singing was prohibited.
In May 2020, however, Calvary Chapel, led by its pastor, Mike McClure, defied county public health orders by holding indoor gatherings that did not comply with mandatory limits. Calvary faces more than $2 million in fines for keeping its doors open against county orders during the pandemic.
This dispute led to a legal battle between the two sides. Calvary has sued the county, arguing that it violated the excessive fines clause of the First Amendment and the Eighth Amendment. The county, in turn, sued Calvary for “egregious and repeated” violations of public health orders and failure to pay fines. Both cases are still in court.
In his report, Zweig reported how “county enforcement” conducted extensive surveillance of Calvary and its parishioners to verify compliance with pandemic lockdown measures. These measures sometimes included gatherings and entering the building for private and intimate gatherings, such as prayer groups. Another technique was more technological.
Calvary Chapel San Jose supporters wave to cars outside the Santa Clara Superior Court in downtown San Jose, California, on December 8, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
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“The Santa Clara County health department used cellular data to track how many people attended Calvary Chapel each day,” Zweig wrote. “I found this information in a prominent affidavit among legal documents by a Stanford Law School professor named Daniel Ho. A research team led by Ho was hired to analyze data from Santa Clara County health officials.”
However, Santa Clara County denied tracking churchgoers’ movements to monitor compliance with public health orders.
“To be clear, the county did not use cell phone surveillance to track anyone at Calvary Chapel during the pandemic,” the county told Fox News Digital. “The article refers to a third-party analysis of aggregated, commercially available data, conducted for litigation purposes in response to Calvary’s own allegations in a lawsuit filed by Calvary.”
Another apparent problem with the county’s conduct was an apparent double standard in imposing lockdown measures.
In September 2020, for example, Santa Clara churches could not yet hold indoor gatherings, but shopping centers could operate at 50% capacity. The following month, shops had no capacity limit and museums could run at 50%, while churches were allowed a maximum of 100 people or 25% capacity.
This inconsistency over pandemic lockdown measures was also a problem in New York, where then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed attendance limits on religious services, prompting a case that went to the Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court blocked Cuomo from enforcing the order.
David Rossini with Bostonian Cleaning and Restoration of Braintree cleans the aisle at St. Gregory’s Church in Dorchester on May 18, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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“It is time – past time – to state clearly that, while the pandemic poses many serious challenges, there is no world where the Constitution allows color-coded executive edicts reopening liquor stores and bike shops, but closing 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 idea of targeting places of worship.
“Unlike the state of California or many other jurisdictions, the county health officer never issued any restrictions for churches or religious organizations,” the county told Fox News Digital. “The provincial health officer protected citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the era before the vaccine was introduced, by establishing uniform and equal public health measures according to the health risks of the activity, 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 less, adding, “This includes movie theaters, churches, cultural events.”
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Then, in February 2021, Santa Clara tried unsuccessfully to argue that it was not subject to a Supreme Court ruling that lifted California’s ban on indoor religious services, which banned all indoor gatherings — regardless of whether they were religious or not — especially indoors. religious services
“We don’t try our cases in public, we try them in court,” the county told Fox News Digital. “The county is proud of its public health mandates, enforcement and overall response, which saved thousands of lives and resulted in one of the lowest death rates of any major county in the United States.”
A Johns Hopkins University study last year noted that lockdowns “have imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted” before concluding: “Lockdown policies are unfounded and should be abandoned as pandemic policy tools.”
Calvary Chapel did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Aaron Kliegman is a political reporter for Fox News Digital.