SAN JOSE, California (LifeSiteNews) — A Christian church in California’s Santa Clara County was hit with hefty fines and its members were surveilled via stakeouts, cell phone monitoring, and other measures “reminiscent of totalitarian regimes” after the church defied the county’s draconian COVID-19 lockdown rules in 2020, according to a March 5 report by independent journalist David Zweig.
San Jose’s Calvary Christian Fellowship, headed by pastor Mike McClure, openly defied the Silicon Valley county’s harsh lockdown rules in May 2020 after initially complying with them, Zweig reported.
“After two months of isolation, many congregants were teetering toward despair,” Zweig said, noting that the church’s decision to buck the county’s mandate to lock down provided congregants with much-needed “mental, spiritual, and physical” assistance.
The Christian community’s defiance of the COVID mandates soon made it a thorn in the county’s side.
Santa Clara reportedly began slamming the church with fine after fine for such violations as failure to social distance, to wear masks, and even failure to comply with the county’s rules against singing.
Zweig said the county ended up “levying more than $2 million in fines against Calvary” and implementing a “multi-faceted surveillance program of the church and its members,” a “spy operation” that “included stakeouts, forced in-person monitoring of prayer groups and other intimate activities, and tracking the cellular mobility data of churchgoers.”
According to Zweig, who published his report after viewing troves of legal filings, the operation was “breathtaking in scope and reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, rather than an American county health department.”
The church soon shut out officers with Santa Clara’s Business Compliance Unit after they began openly surveilling and reporting on churchgoers, the report noted.
However, officers opted to work around this setback by collaborating with a compliant nearby church that allowed them to operate “dozens of stakeouts, spying on Calvary staff and members by peering at them through a chain-link fence from the adjacent property.”
According to court filings, officers took meticulous note of the churchgoers’ ordinary behavior that ran afoul of the county’s new COVID mandates. Enforcers of the county’s rules reported the number of cars in the parking lot, whether or not masks were being worn, and even instances of hugging.
The heavy-handed overzealousness, Zweig said, became an exercise in the ridiculous.
“The sheer absurdity of it all — the hyper specificity, the repetition, the mundanity,” Zweig remarked. “The declarations recounting the surveillance read like stakeout scenes from a screenplay of a police comedy — earnestness played as farce, with the officers as the classic straight man.”
When officers were granted access to the church by a court order later in the year, they began entering the church and writing up detailed notes on the behavior and compliance of churchgoers attending mom’s groups, baptisms, Bible studies, and Sunday services.
The church was written up for improper arrangement of seating, people congregating without masks, and even “[w]omen drinking coffee in a hallway.”
For Zweig, “much of the tone and content” of the write-ups were “of such awkward literalness about such pedestrian circumstances that it achieved a sort of high art of dry humor.”
Despite the “absurdity” of the situation, the county stuck to its guns. Officials even employed cell phone monitoring technology to track the violators.
Zweig said he made the discovery regarding cell phone tracking via a “remarkable declaration amid the legal documents” written by Stanford Law School professor Daniel Ho, an expert in statistical inference and qualitative data analysis on public health.
According to Ho’s declaration, Zweig said, “[t]he county paid to acquire the data from a firm called SafeGraph, a company that ‘aggregates information from 47 million mobile devices across the United States.’”
Using SafeGraph, the county set up a “geofence” around Calvary, which tracked every cellular device that entered the digital boundary.
“Once a device was in the geofenced area for four minutes it was counted as a visit,” Zweig reported, adding that “Ho’s team used statistical modeling to extrapolate the actual number of people coming to Calvary.”
While the data retrieved from the program “ostensibly does not provide personal information on individuals,” Zweig said he “spoke with a scientist who utilizes similar data in their work who said it would, of course, be easy to identify an individual user.”
According to Zweig, the intense surveillance of the church, whose attendance spiked during the pandemic as people sought religious solace, came despite the fact that the surveilled congregants were simply law-abiding people who made a decision for normalcy when faced with bizarre and arbitrary rules.
“They just had a different risk benefit calculation than those made by the authorities, and after some time they felt backed into a corner to the point where they could no longer comply,” he said.
Zweig said that the SafeGraph data, which also tracked the behavior of Santa Clara residents doing other ordinary things, such as traveling over county lines, going to shopping centers, and more, “[i]ronically” proved that “[g]overnment-imposed interventions only work to the extent that people are willing to follow them.”
“One must question whether official rules are effective or reasonable when they compel a large number of good people to become criminals,” Zweig remarked.
The report noted that the county dropped its gathering-violations complaint against Calvary after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that California’s ban on church assemblies during the pandemic was unconstitutional.
However, it’s still seeking $2.78 million from Calvary for its mask violations in a court case expected to conclude in the upcoming months.