Court Battles

California churches sue governor over singing ban

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Three northern California churches are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and other public health officials over a ban on singing and chanting in houses of worship during the coronavirus crisis.

Several advocacy groups, including the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), filed the federal suit Wednesday on behalf of Calvary Chapel of Ukiah, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg and River of Life Church, in Oroville, Calif.

The lawsuit alleges Newsom’s order prohibiting singing and chanting in places of worship violates the churches’ constitutional rights. 

Newsom’s order issued on July 1 says, “Places of worship must therefore discontinue singing and chanting activities.”

The churches say the order unfairly targets places of worship, over other institutions, after the governor supported protests over George Floyd’s death and police brutality that included chanting during the pandemic.

“Despite the ongoing and even increasing restrictions on the protected First Amendment rights to freely assemble and engage in religious exercise as it relates to places of worship, Newsom has been unwavering in his support of massive protests in California,” the lawsuit said. 

In recent weeks, public health officials and medical professionals have pointed to evidence that suggests that talking and increased ventilation — two functions that occur when singing — increase germ particles in the air. The officials suggest that these particles, that could contain COVID-19, can linger in the air for a time and be ingested, possibly causing infection. 

The lawsuit comes as more legal battles challenging the coronavirus restrictions on places of worship have been denied by judges, who rule the state has more authority during the public health emergency, The Sacramento Bee reported

The lawyers argued that singing and praying aloud “is an integral part of worship for believers” and cited scripture that instructs followers to sing. 

Jordan Sekulow, the executive director of the ACLJ, criticized the order, calling it an “unconstitutional abuse of power.”

“And to do it in the name of a pandemic is despicable,” he 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.”

ACLJ worked with Tyler & Bursch, The National Center for Law and Policy and Advocates for Faith & Freedom as the churches’ legal team. Several of these attorneys challenged Newsom’s past orders affecting places of worship during the pandemic.  

Robert Tyler of Tyler & Bursch added, “Let me be clear, the State does not have the jurisdiction to ban houses of worship from singing praises to God.”

“Since the initiation of the lockdown, restrictive mandates in the state’s health orders have been applied to houses of worship unfairly and much more aggressively than other businesses arbitrarily deemed essential, including restaurants and other gatherings,” a press release from ACLJ reads. 

Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The governor announced on Monday that all bars and indoor operations of restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, family entertainment venues, zoos, museums and card rooms would shut down statewide. 

He also declared that 30 counties on a watch list would be required to close fitness centers, places of worship, offices for “Non-Critical Sectors,” personal care services, hair salons, barber shops and malls. 

The lawsuit acknowledges the Monday order, pointing out that the counties where the churches are located, Butte and Mendocino counties, are not included on the watch list. 

California has seen an alarming surge in cases in recent weeks, reaching its highest single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday with 10,387. In total, the state has counted 347,634 cases of coronavirus, leading to 7,227 deaths, according to state data.

Tags California church Coronavirus COVID-19 Gavin Newsom George Floyd protests Lawsuit Pandemic places of worship police brutality Religion Singing
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