Crossroads Community Church Senior Pastor Jim Clark wants to keep his 1,500 parishioners safe during the coronavirus pandemic, but he’s drawing the line at a new California ban on singing or chanting at religious services.
“I said enough’s enough,” Clark said. “We will be singing and praising the Lord. … We don’t chant, but if we did chant, we’d be chanting too.”
The California ban was one of a number of restrictions on indoor businesses and gatherings put in place last week by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom amid spiking virus cases and hospitalizations.
It’s unclear if any similar prohibition on singing exists in the United States.
The ban may well end up in court as there are differing opinions on its legality, with some conservative groups arguing it infringes on religious freedom.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a religious freedom law firm, says it will sue.
“We can’t stand by and watch as California strips its believers of their God-given right to raise their voices in worship and praise,” executive director Jordan Sekulow said on the center’s website.
The center, which was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, did not say how quickly it would sue.
Sekulow was a member of Trump’s defense team, and his father, Jay Sekulow, the center’s chief legal counsel, was one of Trump’s lead attorneys during the impeachment trial.
Another conservative legal group, The Pacific Justice Institute, told faith leaders in a letter that Newsom’s mandate is advisory because it does not say it is an order, cites no legal authority, isn’t signed by any official and includes no reference to penalties.
Institute president Brad Dacus said that after the letter went out, attorneys there fielded dozens of subsequent calls from relieved religious leaders who allowed singing last Sunday and intend to keep doing so.
“These churches are just glad to know they will not be criminally prosecuted for singing worship songs on Sunday morning,” according to Dacus, whose institute has filed unequal treatment lawsuits against state officials in Oregon and Washington.
But Ali Bay, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Services, said the guidance from the state Department of Public Health and Division of Occupational Safety and Health must be followed.
It “has the same authority as all of CDPH’s other guidance, directives, and orders, which the governor has ordered residents to heed,” she said.
Newsom earlier faced criticism for not more quickly allowing religious organizations to resume indoor services. He relented last month but imposed many restrictions, including limiting crowds to 100 people.
He added the order on singing to the state’s 14-page guidance, which reasons that “activities such as singing and chanting negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”
The California Catholic Conference said it would comply.
“You could have a respectful worship service, a quiet one — in fact, a lot of people kind of seek that out anyway,” Catholic Conference spokesman Steve Pehanich said. He said some have choir members participate remotely or take other steps to safely provide music.
“The churches are just trying to keep people safe and are working within those guidelines to do so,” Pehanich said.
But others like Clark said they will ignore the ban.
He has spent nearly 30 years growing his Yuba City church north of Sacramento, and said he is intent on protecting his flock with social distancing and other safety measures. He has masks available, with gloves and hand sanitizer, but they are not required.
Clark won’t cancel indoor services or end singing by the roughly 500 who attend one of three weekly services.
Clark said he has faced no criticism for flouting Newsom’s restrictions. To the contrary, he said feedback has been positive.
“Most of them have been calls, ‘Thank you for standing up for what you believe,’” he said.
About 200 state inspectors fanned out over the long Independence Day weekend to check businesses for violations of new state health orders.
But Greg Burt, spokesman for the conservative California Family Council, said he’d heard of no effort to enforce the singing ban during the first weekend it applied.
“As soon as they try to enforce it, it’s going to make national news,” he said.
“This seems to be a little more extreme than telling them they can’t meet, because you’re telling them how to worship,” Burt said.
“That seems to be a little more over the line involving the government directly violating the First Amendment.”
Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and Republican Party official who has sued Newsom over several health orders during the pandemic, said she is considering a lawsuit over the singing restriction.
Dhillon and other critics, including Advocates for Faith & Freedom and the National Center for Law and Policy, said the church restrictions constitute unequal treatment when compared to recent crowds of demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“If you’re allowed to chant ‘Hey hey, ho ho, racism’s got to go’ but you can’t chant the liturgy, that’s obviously discriminatory,” she said.
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