3 churches sue Calif. over singing ban, say it violates 1st and 14th Amendments

Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg.
Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg. | Facebook/Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg

Three California churches have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom and several state health officials for a ban on singing during church services, arguing that it violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Redding by a team of lawyers from the American Center for Law and Justice, Tyler & Bursch, The National Center for Law and Policy, and Advocates for Faith & Freedom.

“Let me be clear, the State does not have the jurisdiction to ban houses of worship from singing praises to God,” Robert Tyler, partner at Tyler & Bursch, LLP, said in an ACLJ release.

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Plaintiffs in the lawsuit were listed as Calvary Chapel in Ukiah, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg and the River of Life Church in Oroville.

“Singing in church is a biblical mandate,” Kevin Green, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Fort Bragg, told the Los Angeles Times.

In new guidelines issued on July 1, in the face of rising COVID-19 cases, public health officials in California said singing and chanting in houses of worship must not happen because the activity posed a threat to public health.

“Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations,” health officials said in the new guidelines document.

“In particular, activities such as singing and chanting negate the risk reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing. *Places of worship must therefore discontinue singing and chanting activities and limit indoor attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower,” they advised.

Houses of worship, along with other places of work such as hospitals, long-term care facilities, prisons, food production, warehouses, meat processing plants, and grocery stores, were identified as places that had suffered multiple outbreaks of COVID-19.

report from the Skagit County Public Health Department in Washington state published by the CDC in May showed how quickly the coronavirus spread after a choir practice became a “superspreader event” for the virus that infected 86% of attending members and killed two of them.

A few weeks ago, California began allowing the reopening of churches for in-person services with guidelines after requiring most Californians in March to stay at home during the lockdown so hospitals were not overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients all at once. A recent uptick in cases led Newsom to reverse that move on Monday for at least 30 counties.

Newsom said churches, protests, fitness centers and businesses in several industries would have to shut down again unless they can operate outside or through pick-up services.

Along with Newsom in his official capacity, California Public Health Officer Sonia Angell, Mendocino County Public Health Officer Noemi Doohan, and Butte County Public Health Officer Ngoc-Phuong Luu, are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

“The orders are clear: Failure to comply with the Worship Ban ‘constitutes an imminent threat to public health and menace to public health, constitutes a public nuisance, and is punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both,’” the ACLJ said. “The lawsuit requests a restraining order and injunctive relief based on the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Our clients would like to see a quick resolution, with the governor and health officers changing or modifying this wording.”

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