San Jose church fights back $2.8M fine for defying COVID order
A San Jose church is countersuing Santa Clara County after the state imposed $2.8 million in fines on the place of worship for ignoring COVID-19 lockdown orders, according to The Free Press.
Calvary Chapel is part of the larger Santa Clara County. It was the first county in the country to declare a shelter-in-place order in 2020, ordering citizens to remain in their homes unless engaging in an essential activity, like buying groceries or going to the hospital.
Calvary claims the orders violated worshippers' First Amendment rights and violated the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment.
According to the Church's attorney, Mariah Gondeiro, the state's masking orders were unconstitutional because they were not applied equally among all people.
"They exempted essential government entities, as well as personal care [businesses] like hair and nail salons, and entertainment studios. There was no singing ban on entertainment studios, so they could continue their productions," she said.
A spokesperson for Santa Clara County told The Free Press they "issued notices of violation to hundreds of entities that violated the orders, including card rooms, and virtually all of them came into compliance. It would not be appropriate to allow Calvary, an entity that continually violated the law and placed the community at severe risk… to receive more favorable treatment over all those (including hundreds of churches) that made the sacrifices to comply with the law."
The county also argues that it had an imperative to protect the public from the health risks of a pandemic.
Calvary initially followed the orders in March, but two months later, Pastor Mike McClure gave a sermon.
"God doesn't want us to isolate ourselves," he told the crowd. "All of us need to be in the sanctuary. I don't care what they say, I'm never again going to close the doors, ever."
The following Sunday, church services were held. They were also held every Sunday after that. It was the only Santa Clara County church to defy the lockdown openly.
Masking and social distancing were optional, people sang together and some even embraced. In October 2020, the county allowed houses of worship to operate at 25% capacity. Calvary held services sometimes with attendees going well into the thousands.
Months earlier, in August 2020, Santa Clara created a business compliance unit of 10 employees to investigate any violations of their COVID-19 lockdown regulations. Citizens were also encouraged to report neighbors using their website and hotline anonymously.
One anonymous complaint in August 2020 saw the Church get slapped with a cease-and-desist order. From that point further, officials surveilled the Church, reported violations and wrote up fines. Every time a violation was not corrected, the fine was doubled, up to a maximum penalty of $5,000 daily.
Those fines have accumulated to $2.8 million.
Calvary criticized many of the methods the state used to enforce its protocols.
Over at least three months, agents watched the church through a chain link fence owned by a church next door. The adjacent church had permitted the state to let law enforcement station themselves on their property.
Calvary was written up for parking lot attendants' failure to wear face masks outdoors, a lack of adequate social distancing, and hugging. Officials also counted the number of cars parked outside the church on a near daily basis.
According to journalist David Zweig, Santa Clara County hired SafeGraph, a company that "aggregates information from 47 million mobile devices across the United States."
The company's resources were allegedly used to set up a virtual perimeter around the Calvary Chapel and utilized GPS to track churchgoers.
Daniel Ho, a Stanford law professor with a public health data analysis background, was allegedly hired to analyze the data results. He was paid $800 an hour, while the officials monitoring the church were paid $219 per hour.
Attorney and information law specialist Irina Tsukerman told The Free Press that the use of digital surveillance could be a serious violation of civil liberties.
"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.
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."
A trial over the fines is set for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, in May.
Since the lawsuits and the COVID-19 pandemic, membership at Calvary has increased from 1,000 to over 3,000 people.
Fox News' Aaron Kliegman contributed to this report.