Several Christian churches filed a lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 15, saying the California governor’s new guidelines that ban singing during indoor services violate their constitutional rights.
The California Department of Public Health announced guidelines on July 1 for places of worship and cultural ceremonies that mandate they must “discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities” and limit indoor attendance to 25 percent of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower, to slow the spread of COVID-19.
River of Life Church in Oroville, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg, and Calvary Chapel of Ukiah are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, while Newsom and California Public Health Officer Dr. Sonia Angell are among the defendants. The three churches are all located in Northern California.
“Banning singing in California churches is an unconstitutional abuse of power. And to do it in the name of a pandemic is despicable,” plaintiff attorney Jordan Sekulow said in a statement. “This ban is clearly targeted at religion. It is clearly a violation of the First Amendment and a direct violation of religious liberty.”
The suit says that Newsom was in full support of massive protests across the state, citing a June 5 tweet in which he wrote that protesters “have the right to protest peacefully,” but is not relaying the same enthusiasm for evangelical Christians who wish to exercise their freedom of religion.
Each church holds weekly worship services that include singing, recitation of scripture, and prayer. Singing and praying aloud “as a body of Christ” is an essential part of worship, the lawsuit states, and placing restrictions on such practices is a direct violation of their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.
Newsom is also breaching the churches’ 14th Amendment rights of equal protection under the law by making “arbitrary distinctions between individuals based solely on differences that are irrelevant to a legitimate governmental objection,” according to the lawsuit.
Newsom and the governor’s office did not respond with comment prior to publication.
“Let me be clear, the State does not have the jurisdiction to ban houses of worship from singing praises to God,” attorney Robert Tyler said in a statement.
The governor’s guidelines prohibit singing and chanting during religious services and rehearsals, even if the congregations follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations that encourage mask wearing and social distancing.
The state guidelines cite an “increased likelihood for transmission” of COVID-19 from “contaminated exhaled droplets” that are released through singing or chanting. The guidelines recommend alternative methods of worship, including internet streaming.
Failure to comply with the order “is punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both,” the lawsuit states.