Federal Court upholds California’s COVID-related restrictions on singing, chanting in religious worship

by | Mar 18, 2021

Via Religion Clause, a federal court in California declined to issue an injunction that would halt the state’s prohibition on singing and chanting during worship services after concluding the regulations did not treat religion differently than secular activities. The plaintiff churches argued their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion was violated because social protests and entertainment productions were not subject to the same restrictions as houses of worship, but the court found that was not the case.

Here is an excerpt from the order in which the court explains that the timeline of state COVID-related regulations does not support the plaintiffs’ position

Even as the State has modified restrictions in a number of these categories, it has not loosened the restrictions on indoor singing for categories other than churches. While music, film and television production has been allowed to engage in some indoor singing since June 2020, this activity has been subject to stringent requirements negotiated between studios and unions, and effectively blessed by the State. The State’s allowing of this indoor activity is consistent with its evaluation of the public health data regarding the risks of singing in the studio environment, and effective management of those risks. Most recently, the State has tightened restrictions on this industry by enacting a prohibition on live audiences. At the same time, the State has now issued protocols allowing those who serve as performers during church services, presumably including choir members or soloists, to sing indoors subject to masking and distancing. Under these newest rules, the State argues, “worship services are treated more favorably than the entertainment industry.” To the extent one might question whether churches were being treated equivalently to the entertainment industry, that doubt appears to have been eliminated beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year issued an emergency injunction halting California’s total ban on indoor worship services in extremely high infection areas, but it left the restrictions on singing in place. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in recent decisions likewise found the ban on singing and chanting applied equally to secular activities and thus did not violate the free exercise of religion. Because of the specific dangers of COVID-19 transmission associated with singing, the appeals court ruled, a ban is justified.

This latest decision takes into account the recent apparent shift in Supreme Court rulings on this issue, following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in favor of houses of worship that object to restrictions. The somewhat increased disfavor toward state restrictions on worship activity has thus far not extended to the specific bans on singing and chanting in California.