California imposed some of the harshest lockdown measures during the pandemic on its residents. Santa Clara County, in particular, was one of the strictest counties in the state, being an adamant enforcer of the lockdowns. However, one church in Santa Clara refused to have their right to worship trampled on by the government, defying the order of the local health department.
In May 2020, San Jose’s Calvary Chapel, led by pastor Mike McClure, announced it would reopen to the public, disregarding the health department’s shelter-in-place order, which mandated that all citizens stay home unless they stay home performing essential activities, such as buying food or receiving medical care. David Zweig’s newsletter, “Silent Lunch”, reported:
San Jose’s Calvary Chapel, led by its pastor, Mike McClure, brazenly defied these orders. On May 24, 2020, McClure stated publicly that he would reopen the church the following week, regardless of the health department’s orders, and that he would never close the church again. After two months of isolation, many congregants were teetering toward despair. They were suffering greatly from loneliness, depression, and crippling anxiety — the church was their community, and returning to the normalcy of its rituals and in-person fellowship was vital for their mental, spiritual, and physical well-being.
This initiated a clash between the church and the county. The church claimed several constitutional rights were violated by the lockdown measures, which led to them suing the county in federal court. The county also had a lawsuit against the church for repeatedly not paying its fines and violating county health orders. According to the legal documents from these lawsuits, the health department took extreme measures to enforce their lockdown order that resembled the actions of “totalitarian regimes.” According to Zweig:
Both cases are still in litigation, but extensive legal documents, totaling more than a thousand pages, reveal a county, and its health department, that went to extraordinary, and potentially unlawful, lengths to enforce its decrees. These efforts include levying more than $2 million in fines against Calvary, and a multi-faceted surveillance program of the church and its members, breathtaking in scope and reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, rather than an American county health department — the spy operation included stakeouts, forced in-person monitoring of prayer groups and other intimate activities, and tracking the cellular mobility data of churchgoers.
The county’s public health orders, which were applied incongruently to different entities, and its enforcement mechanisms raise important legal and ethical issues about government infringements on citizens’ rights related to privacy, assembly, and religion that run well beyond the context of the pandemic and have potential implications for Americans regardless of their religious or political affiliation.
It is revealed that “enforcement officers” of the county’s Business Compliance Unite conducted regular surveillance for months of the church that determined whether attendees were following health ordinances. The surveillance became so overreaching that it included monitoring people who hugged each other and whether they had masks on. Officers also infiltrated intimate settings in the church to surveil small prayer groups, children’s daycare and even tracked the cell phone data of churchgoers to see how many people were in attendance. The battle between Santa Clara County and San Jose’s Calvary Chapel highlights the important issue of of government overreach during the pandemic. The punitive measures taken against this church mirror that of a totalitarian regime combating dissidence and this should be a stark reminder for everyone to not allow your state to become California.
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