ACLJ Files for Preliminary Injunction to Stop the Criminal Enforcement of California’s Unjust Church Singing Ban


Jordan Sekulow

July 28, 2020

5 min read

Religious Liberty



Churches in California have been forced into silence.

The ACLJ just filed a critical motion to stop the enforcement of the unjust ban and give churches back their voices.

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment states it pretty clear: “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” Singing is an integral part of worship, especially for Christians.

That didn’t stop the state of California from issuing an order to cease singing, under the guise of combatting the Coronavirus pandemic. The problem is the ban specifically – and solely – targets churches and places of worship from singing or chanting during their indoor worship services.

We took direct action, filing a lawsuit challenging California’s ban on singing and chanting activities in churches and houses of worship on behalf of three California churches: Calvary Chapel of Ukiah, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg, and River of Life Church.

And now we’ve just filed a preliminary injunction motion in federal court to quickly halt the enforcement of California’s unconstitutional order.

Targeting churches and dictating how they may practice their beliefs, including worship, is unconstitutional – especially at a time when scores of protestors are being permitted,

and in California buoyed by the Governor, to take the streets and chant and shout. It’s biased against churches, and it’s wrong.

Our motion went right to the point:

[The State] ordered under criminal penalty what would previously have been unthinkable in a free nation like the United States—the prohibition of singing or chanting in places of worship in the State of California . . . . This ban on [singing] or chanting is not applicable in any other indoor or outdoor contexts; it only applies to singing and chanting in a place of worship. While [churches] appreciate the significant efforts [the government has] made to protect the health and safety of their community, [churches] also recognize that a virus does not suspend their constitutional rights. Even in the midst of a pandemic, [the State does] not have the authority to criminalize singing and chanting in places of worship or so constrictively dictate the mode and manner of religious worship, especially where similar restrictions are not placed on secular activities, and other less restrictive means are available.

If the government decides to regulate First Amendment protected activities—as the ban on singing and chanting in places of worship clearly does—in pursuing even a compelling state interest, the government must narrowly tailor its restrictions. This is precisely what [the State has] not done. Therefore, [churches] respectfully request that this Court, in the interest of justice and as a guardian of civil rights, grant a preliminary injunction so that [people] can freely sing and chant in their churches without fear of being penalized or arrested while simultaneously protecting their churches and the community from COVID-19 by carefully following CDC social distancing guidelines.

Our filing went on to explain under the law:

[T]he Worship Ban is not neutral because it bans only places of worship from singing or chanting indoors, while at the same time allowing every other open establishment to engage in singing or chanting, whether indoors or outdoors.

Defendant Newsom also illustrated a lack of neutrality by supporting and encouraging mass protests, sending a message that chanting during protests is deserving of preferential treatment. . . . [Governor] Newsom has not applied the singing or chanting ban to protests, where chanting and loud yelling is commonplace and, in fact, a hallmark of a protest.

The Worship Ban is therefore subject to strict scrutiny.

If the court grants our motion and issues a temporary injunction, it would allow our clients to once again sing as part of their worship services.

Our motion also pointed out that enforcement of this ban could naturally lead to further abuses of power against churches and believers:

Consider what monitoring and enforcing compliance with the ban would likely entail:

  • Sending police officers or other government agents into places of worship to monitor the religious activities of religious leaders and congregants.
  • Having government agents review internet videos of worship services to check whether any prohibited singing or chanting occurred.
  • Investigating anonymous tips that a religious service at a place of worship crossed the line from permissible talking to impermissible singing or chanting.
  • Enforcement efforts (fines, criminal charges, etc.) against places of worship, religious leaders and/or congregants for singing or chanting during a worship service.

As we told you early on in the lockdown, churches have gone out of their way to meet every demand put on them during the Coronavirus pandemic and, in many cases, led the way, holding virtual services and prayer meetings.

Now as some churches have been given the approval to begin reopening, they are following commonsense guidelines such as limiting capacity, requiring congregants to practice social distancing, screening temperatures, and requiring masks. Now on top of all that additional effort, the state wants to tell them how they can practice their faith.

That’s where the state has gone too far. The argument that church congregations’ singing might somehow further increase the spread of the virus, and not any other group such as throngs of protestors in public streets and plazas, is specious at best.

There are multiple verses throughout the Bible commanding believers to sing. Psalm 100 says “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” and “come before his presence with singing.” Ephesians 5:19, which we quote in our lawsuit, commands us to speak to one another “with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”

The California singing ban is unconstitutional and a violation of religious liberty. It must be lifted. Churches must be allowed to worship in song.

As we defend the rights of churches in court, we need YOU. Sign our urgent petition.