Three California churches are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom over his attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19 by banning singing at houses of worship.
The evangelical congregations insist Newsom is infringing on their religious liberty by forcing them to stop singing and chanting during indoor services, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Sacramento.
“To prohibit group singing and chanting is to effectively prohibit corporate Christian worship,” the complaint states.
California’s health department updated its guidelines for houses of worship on July 1, adding new restrictions on singing and chanting. The guidelines explain that these activities “negate the risk reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing” since there is a greater chance that COVID-19 will spread through “contaminated exhaled droplets.”
“Consider practicing these activities through alternative methods (such as internet streaming) that ensure individual congregation members perform these activities separately in their own homes,” the guidelines say.
But the Northern California churches ― Calvary Chapel of Ukiah, Calvary Chapel of Fort Bragg and River of Life Church in Oroville ― don’t appreciate the government telling them how to worship. The churches are seeking an injunction against the health department’s ban in a lawsuit that names Newsom and three health officials as defendants.
The complaint quotes multiple Bible verses demonstrating that “singing and praying aloud” are integral parts of worship. Houses of worship are being unfairly singled out, the churches claim, since singing and chanting haven’t technically been banned in other indoor locations, such as shopping malls, child care centers and schools.
The lawsuit tries to paint Newsom as a hypocritical for supporting Black Lives Matter protests while banning singing and chanting at indoor worship services. If a protest were to take place indoors, singing and chanting would be allowed there, the churches argue.
Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also initially suggested that houses of worship refrain from using a choir and having congregants sing. But in late May, the agency removed that guidance from its website. According to The Washington Post, the White House requested that change.
The California churches are being represented by three conservative Christian legal defense groups: Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the National Center for Law & Policy, and the American Center for Law & Justice. The ACLJ is run by Jay Sekulow, a member of President Donald Trump’s legal team. Jordan Sekulow, his son and the executive director of the law firm, called banning singing an “unconstitutional abuse of power.”
“To do it in the name of a pandemic is despicable,” the younger Sekulow said. “This ban is clearly targeted at religion.”
Across the country, conservative Christian legal groups have been pushing for houses of worship to be allowed to function with minimal legal restrictions during the pandemic. In California, over 1,500 pastors signed a “declaration of essentiality” in mid-May calling on Newsom to open houses of worship earlier than the governor originally intended. Advocates for Faith and Freedom were involved in that push. On May 25, the governor allowed churches to reopen at 25% capacity or up to 100 attendees while following social distancing rules. Days later, a divided Supreme Court affirmed that California could enforce limits on faith gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conservative Christian activists have framed the debate over reopening houses of worship as a religious freedom issue, while largely ignoring the science behind why congregational worship is particularly risky during the pandemic. Health experts have suggested that the virus can spread through aerosolized respiratory droplets. High-powered vocalizations, such as shouting and singing, are particularly efficient at carrying these aerosols farther. Indoor choir rehearsals and performances have been linked to outbreaks of COVID-19 across the world.
Hospitalizations and rates of positive COVID-19 tests have been rising across California in recent days. In light of an uptick in Mendocino County, where Calvary Chapel of Ukiah and Calvary Chapel of Fort Bragg are located, the county’s health department said it expects to backtrack on reopening houses of worship and certain other facilities. The change is scheduled to go into effect on Friday. It’s unclear how it would affect the lawsuit.
The Fort Bragg church suggested Thursday on Facebook that the ban on singing at church “still needs to be dealt with.”
Pastor Kevin Green said that, even though he doesn’t agree with it, his church will comply with Mendocino County’s order prohibiting in-person worship.
“This is not an easy decision. A dreadful balancing act,” Green wrote on Facebook.
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