Geofencing: How Calvary Chapel Almost Met Its Demise

( – If you’ve ever allowed an app like Uber or Google Maps to track your location, you may have unwittingly opened the door to intrusive government action waged against you. That’s precisely what happened when officials from Santa Clara County, California, used geofencing against Calvary Chapel as part of an insidious effort to levy fines for breaking government-mandated curfews during the pandemic — a practice that nearly led to the house of worship’s untimely demise.

As the name implies, geofencing is a technique used to create a digital fence around a structure, park, or other defined location, allowing an entity to track who enters and exits the site. Santa Clara officials used that technology to monitor whether Calvary Chapel adhered to the county health department’s year-long lockdown order. The church still owes millions of dollars in fines for allegedly breaching those restrictions.

Fed up and relying on a 2021 Supreme Court ruling that effectively ordered California authorities to allow churches to resume indoor worship services, lead pastor Mike McClure filed a lawsuit against Santa Clara County and SafeGraph, the data company officials used to acquire the information obtained through geofencing.

The lawsuit claims that Santa Clara County officials, with the assistance of SafeGraph, violated their First Amendment right to assembly and Fourth Amendment protections against violating church members’ privacy in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The 189-page document details the county’s intrusive use of geofencing without a warrant. Instead, officials obtained that information from SafeGraph. The church is asking the Court to award nominal damages for the county’s violation of their civil rights, compensatory damages to be determined at trial, all legal costs as allowed by law, and any other relief the Court deems fair and equitable.

The lawsuit remains in its preliminary stages. Both parties agreed to give the attorneys for Santa Clara and SafeGraph until October 23 to file their initial response to the plaintiff’s civil complaint.

As an important side note, civil rights groups like the ACLU and educational entities like the Harvard Law Review are actively pushing back against the government’s intrusive use of geofencing. A recent amicus brief filed by the ACLU in the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals asks the panel to suppress evidence obtained by law enforcement officials using a geofence warrant.

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