Calif. issues ban on singing in churches amid ongoing pandemic

Unsplash/Tyler Callahan
Unsplash/Tyler Callahan

New COVID-19 guidelines in California forbid singing during worship services to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

Issued Wednesday, the updated policies from the state's department of public health require churches and other houses of worship to "discontinue singing and chanting activities." Whereas official guidelines in late May permitted singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances but advised against them, such things are now formally prohibited.

“Activities such as singing and chanting negate the risk reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing,” the state asserted in its updated guidelines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says singing and chanting can spread coronavirus just as easily as sneezing or coughing.

The new measure comes amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the West coast state.

Indoor restaurant dining, movie theaters, museums and other venues have also been instructed to shut down in 19 counties. 

The new guidelines come as "California's positivity rate – a key indicator of community spread – is trending modestly upward in the 14-day average. Hospitalization rates are also trending upwards in the 14-day average. California has 240,195 confirmed cases to date," the California Department of Public Health announced.

Thus far, church-led lawsuits alleging First Amendment violations contesting the original mid-March state government-issued stay-at-home order have been unsuccessful in court.

In mid-April, Mendocino County in California faced backlash when the county instituted a ban that went into effect on Good Friday on church choir members from meeting to record songs for online worship services. Under the ban, only four people were allowed to record from one place and "no singing or use of wind instruments, harmonicas or other instruments that could spread COVID-19 through projected droplets shall be permitted unless the recording of the event is done at one’s residence."

California is not the only state that has moved to bar singing in order to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Also in April, Legacy Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, filed a lawsuit against the state, asserting that the way in which Democrat Gov. Michelle Lynn Lujan Grisham's order was implemented was sinister in that it was issued on Good Friday and restricted gatherings to no more than five people. The evangelical megachurch said it needed approximately 30 people to conduct its online streaming efforts.

The pandemic has highlighted tensions between the government's duty to protect the public from a deadly disease and the preservation of protected rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, especially religious freedoms.

"The critical issue is this: the state of California is trying to dictate what kind of worship may or may not take place within a religious assembly. This is a flagrant and appalling transgression of essential American rights," R. James King, a Minnesota pastor, wrote in The Resurgent Friday, in an article blasting the move.

King noted that he does not dispute the science that activities like singing enable virus-laden droplets to be projected more easily, but that the standard being applied to churches was unfair given recent mass protests.

"Peaceful protests are, like worship, protected by the First Amendment. Like worship, they include large gatherings of people. Like worship, they include periods of singing and chanting. However, unlike worship, they remain untroubled by intrusive state interference. Governor Gavin Newsom supported the protests, and there is no doubt that, were they to erupt again, he would continue to excuse activities that are now banned by his administration in church buildings. So they dictate how people worship, and they target only religious worship," he said.

"[N]o religious assembly should have their worship practices dictated by the state. It is unconstitutional. It is wrong."

In California, the worst outbreak in the virus is in Imperial County, which borders Mexico and is an agricultural center. Infection rates are 20% — twice the state average — and hospitals are reportedly overwhelmed, The Associated Press noted Thursday.

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