A line has been crossed by the state of California.
The controversies stemming from the state-level executive orders levied in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic are too numerous to list. However, one of the most heated topics has been the orders in many states for churches to cancel their services. The extent of these orders has, at times, prompted legal action. Indeed, California has already drawn attention from the Department of Justice.
Well, California is at it again. It is not a suggestion anymore, but an order: They have banned singing in church.
Californians are still free to attend their house of worship. But they’re forbidden from singing or chanting.
Updated COVID-19 guidelines issued Wednesday by the state Department of Public Health require churches and other houses of worship to “discontinue singing and chanting activities.”
It’s time to check another box in the “unprecedented events in 2020” file. Unlike previous orders in various states that included churches as part of a larger effort to prevent any kind of large group assembly, this order targets specific activity within religious gatherings. It attempts to directly regulate how people worship.
Music is a vital part of the worship assembly in every denomination of Christianity and in virtually all other faiths. Music appears frequently in the Bible, which often records singing in the process of worship. The Israelites celebrated God’s victory at the Red Sea in song, for example, and Jesus sang with His disciples following the Last Supper. Psalms is a book of music, and it contains frequent exhortations for God’s people to sing. Christians that may disagree on virtually every other item of doctrine all hold music to be a vital part of corporate worship; it is an essential part of the Christian faith.
However, the critical issue in this moment is not what Christians (or Jews, or Muslims, or any others) think about music. 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.
It must be noted that this objection is not about whether singing carries a greater risk for transmission of COVID-19. The projection of droplets is plainly greater during activities such as singing. Any church member who has surreptitiously swept their own droplets off of their sheet music during choir practice understands this. Singing increases the possibility of transmission.
But so do 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.
The attempt to ban worship protected by the First Amendment is intolerable in isolation. If they were genuinely doing this for health and applying it to all First Amendment activities, it would still be wrong. In the context of the national upheaval in which we find ourself, though, it is worse. It is divisive, it is discriminatory, and it opens the door for state interference in other aspects of religious life. It is a selective ban inflicted on activities that are politically unfavorable. Newsom’s administration does it because they think they can.
Gavin Newsom must quickly and publicly reverse this policy.
When he does so, singing will remain an issue. Religious assemblies will still need to consider the needs of their parishioners and the wider pandemic. These choices are more difficult with states like California squandering their influence with capricious regulations, but the choices still must be made. Some will sing. Some may choose to forego vocal music voluntarily. That is their choice; that is good.
But no religious assembly should have their worship practices dictated by the state. It is unconstitutional. It is wrong.
We will not comply.