Acton Institute Powerblog

Archbishop: California church singing ban reminiscent of ‘persecutions in the USSR’

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to ban singing inside churches — and in some cases, to close churches outright — is ringing some unpleasant bells.

The government’s “infringement of our religious rights” reminds his flock of “the era of godless persecutions in the USSR,” says a leader of the Russian religious community.

As Americans returned to their workplaces after celebrating the Fourth of July holiday on July 6, the state of California rolled out a new “guidance” requiring all churches and other places of worship to cease indoor singing.

One week later, on July 13, the governor intensified those regulations. In addition to closing all indoor dining in California, he ordered that counties which have been on the state’s monitoring list for three consecutive days are “required to shut down” all malls, fitness centers, and “worship services” — which are listed just before “protests.”

As of this writing, the order applies to 30 of the state’s 58 counties.

Archbishop Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is joined by pastors from a variety of Christian traditions in saying that the government order infringes on their religious liberty.

The state says the singing ban is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 – and its terms are not negotiable.

“Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations,” the original document which banned church singing says.

“Places of worship must therefore discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities,” it continues. (Emphasis added.)

The government regulation effectively makes it impossible for Eastern Orthodox Christians and Byzantine Catholics to celebrate their worship services properly. Not only the Divine Liturgy but every liturgical service in the Eastern Christian tradition is sung or chanted – a sign of the tradition’s ancient roots. Before the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council, celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass was divided into “high Mass” (which was sung or chanted) and “low Mass” (which was spoken). The Eastern Orthodox tradition has no equivalent to a “Low Mass.”

In an open letter to Gov. Newsom, Abp. Kyrill – who leads the Diocese of Western America from his cathedral in San Francisco – says the Orthodox Church willingly canceled services for months to obey the state’s state-at-home order, “even though [Christians] were deprived of the reverent Divine Services of Great Lent and the joyous celebration of the Triumph of the Holy Resurrection.”

But he sees a deep hypocrisy at work when he compares the state’s decree for “places of worship” and its treatment of Black Lives Matter protests.

Gov. Newsom – who says he maintains a Roman Catholic identity but “maybe I should let go of it” – promised his COVID-19 response would be guided exclusively by “science” and “data.” Yet he praised and encouraged crowded mass protests devoid of social distancing and replete with chanting.

Abp. Kyrill highlights this “contradiction in that mass protests take place everywhere, at which absolutely all precautions are violated with impunity. Yet, liturgical singing performed during the Divine Services and while observing all of the rules, is forbidden.”

“This is open discrimination, hypocrisy and the infringement of our religious rights, prompting us to recall the era of godless persecutions in the USSR,” he writes.

The California government directive bears no signature and specifies no penalties for non-compliance – yet. But the state says that may be coming.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health told Snopes.com that “Californians are being encouraged” to obey the administrative decree “without the threat of fines and citations as the first course of action.” Another representative of the state government told ABC News the guidance “has the same authority as all of CDPH’s other guidance, directives, and orders, which the governor has ordered residents to heed.”

The California Catholic Conference said it would obey the government’s directive on how to conduct its worship life. “The churches are just trying to keep people safe and are working within those guidelines to do so,” a spokesman said.

But the leaders of many other Christian backgrounds vow resistance to a government order that banishes singing, an action that beautifies church services and which some see as a necessary part of Christian worship. Pastor Paul Chappell of the 9,000-member Lancaster Baptist Church in the Los Angeles area, says his church will ignore the guidance.

“The word of God determines how we worship, not Sacramento,” he says.

Scholars say that the wording of the directive also raises First Amendment concerns that the state is directing the church to worship in specific ways.

“By using mandatory language for some religious activities, while discretionary for others, the health department has demoted the importance of certain church activities as opposed to others and is in turn governing the church in the area of worship, which government may not do,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The state has no authority to direct the manner and form of worship. It is beyond the competence and the authority of the state to ban singing and chanting in houses of worship.”

The state will face legal challenges if it tries to enforce the order. The American Center for Law and Justice, the Center for American Liberty, and other legal nonprofits have said they will sue if the state goes too far.

The full text of the letter reads as follows:

An open letter to the honourable Gavin Newsom, Governor of California from His Eminence Kyrill Archbishop of San Francisco and Western America in light of the decree issued by the Governor of California that forbids choral singing in churches.

Your Excellency,

I hereby express my protest against the recent prohibition of liturgical singing in houses of worship, which is an infringement of the rights and religious freedoms of the clergy and faithful of the Western American Diocese of the Russian Diaspora, the other Local Orthodox Churches, performing their ministry in this state, as well as other religious bodies.

During the years of Soviet rule, when the Russian Orthodox Church was subjected to persecution, Russian émigrés and their descendants comprising the Russia Church Abroad, came to the United States of America and other countries overseas, in order to freely confess their Orthodox Faith, to freely perform Divine Services, to observe the feast days, fasts and all the customs established by the Orthodox Church. In this manner, they followed the example of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, who sought the possibility of freely confessing their faith.

From the very beginning of the current global outbreak of the coronavirus the clergy and faithful of our Diocese, desiring to preserve the health of the population and stop the spread of the coronavirus, and respecting those in power, rigorously strove to adhere to all the standard norms and restrictions introduced by local health authorities. Even though they were deprived of the reverent Divine Services of Great Lent and the joyous celebration of the Triumph of the Holy Resurrection, our parishioners were sympathetic to our directives, attending our churches “virtually.” However, we now observe a contradiction in that mass protests take place everywhere, at which absolutely all precautions are violated with impunity. Yet, liturgical singing performed during the Divine Services and while observing all of the rules, is forbidden. This is open discrimination, hypocrisy and the infringement of our religious rights, prompting us to recall the era of godless persecutions in the USSR.

Nonetheless, we will continue to pray with gratitude “for this land, its authorities and armed forces,” and “for this city, every city and country and all who in faith dwell therein.” Yet, at the same time, we will defend the rights of our clergy and our parishioners who possess full citizenship in the United States of America.

+KYRILL
Archbishop of San Francisco and Western America
Secretary of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad

July 2020

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.