Law & the Courts

California Churches Sue Gov. Newsom over COVID Lockdowns

California governor Gavin Newsom (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Three California churches are bringing a federal lawsuit against the state over Governor Gavin Newsom’s ban on singing as a part of religious services, claiming that the coronavirus restriction is being applied to them in a discriminatory manner.

The Calvary Chapel of Ukiah, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg, and River of Life Church say that the governor’s ban violates the northern California churches’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech and due process.

Coronavirus cases in California began to spike at the end of June, and by July 7 the state recorded 11,700 cases in a single day. On July 1, Newsom banned singing and chanting during indoor church services but permitted the same activities in other contexts in the same counties, say the plaintiffs, who call the action a “worship ban.”

Newsom had previously allowed houses of worship to resume services several weeks earlier on May 25. On July 13, as cases of the virus continued to increase, Newsom imposed restrictions again on church services as well as businesses including indoor restaurants, gyms, and hair salons. 

“Places of worship must therefore discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities” as well as limit indoor attendance at church services to 25 percent of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower, California’s health guidance now reads.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of California, names Newsom as a defendant as well as California’s Public Health Director Dr. Sonia Angell and the public health officers for Mendocino and Butte Counties. The churches are represented by American Center for Law and Justice, including attorney Jay Sekulow, who served as lead outside counsel to President Trump during his impeachment trial.

The plaintiffs describe themselves in the lawsuit as evangelical Christian churches with “sincerely held religious beliefs” who are “committed to the teachings of the Bible” and for whom “singing and praying aloud as a body of Christ is an integral part of worship.”

“Banning singing in California churches is an unconstitutional abuse of power. And to do it in the name of a pandemic is despicable. This ban is clearly targeted at religion. It is clearly a violation of the First Amendment and a direct violation of religious liberty,” said attorney Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ.

Hundreds of worshippers gathered last week on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to protest the ban, local religious leaders guiding the crowd in worship and prayer for about two hours.

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