During the first week of July, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed orders that placed restrictions on indoor businesses and gatherings. One part of these orders is that places of worship must temporarily stop all singing and chanting during services until California’s rising COVID-19 numbers begin to fall again.
Or so the hysteria says. But this storyline is not actually true.
Not surprisingly, a number of conservative groups are planning to sue California on the basis that banning praise and worship infringes on people’s constitutional freedom of religion.
But does the so-called “ban” on singing really stop churches from worshipping God?
No, it doesn’t. Only a lack of imagination and an inability to plan for the future can stop congregants from worshipping. It is, after all, possible to worship and honor God in a quiet environment (or by blasting worship music over the speaker system while encouraging people to sing along in their heads!).
Did California Really Ban Church Singing?
Yes and no.
On 1 July 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) division for the State of California issued a guidance entitled, “COVID-19 Industry Guidance: Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies (OSHA Guidance).” What has become the most controversial part of this document is found on page 3, which reads, “Places of worship must therefore discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities and limit indoor attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.”
But something to note is that OSHA’s document was not an executive order from Governor Newsom. The primary thing this document does is provide guidance for how California churches ought to conduct religious services in order to keep as many people safe and healthy during this global pandemic.
Because places of worship are also businesses that have employers and employees, OSHA has every right to demand (and workers have every right to expect) a place of business to be safe and free from harming both employees and customers. But that is where OSHA’s legal jurisdiction ends because OSHA cannot dictate the practices of volunteers or congregants attending service. Only paid worship leaders, band members, and singers are affected by the “COVID-19 Industry Guidance.”
Of course, there is now debate as to whether these guidelines are legally enforceable since they have been listed alongside orders and directives from both the California Department of Public Health and the Governor’s Office. Indeed, as Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Associated Press:
“The Supreme Court has made it clear, as have the lower courts, that restrictions on assemblies, including for religious purposes, are constitutional. I think this restriction surely is constitutional, especially as cases of COVID-19 are surging. There can be enforcement of this, as with other businesses.”
So, why wouldn’t a church or other place of worship want to follow this guidance and temporarily suspend singing until the pandemic is over? The more important question ought to be: Will following OSHA’s guidelines have any effect on the pandemic?
California’s Rising Death Toll
As of 16 September, California has the highest reported cases of Coronavirus with 768,845 infected and 14,616 deaths.
Indeed, by the second week of July, California was averaging 91 COVID-related deaths per day.
Remember: churches are not Public Health agencies, and pastors usually have little to no medical knowledge. The people arguing over these types of restrictions and guidelines are usually not trained virologists, microbiologists, or epidemiologists, nor do they have any experience working for the CDC. If you want to stay safe and healthy, then follow the guidelines set out by the experts. I seriously doubt any respectable theologian thinks you will be angering or dishonoring God for doing so.
Will the So-Called Singing Ban Help?
Yes, it will. It could have a dramatic effect on preventing the spread of Coronavirus and, therefore, have the potential of saving countless hundreds of lives. In fact, the temporarily suspension of live singing in churches has proven to be the necessary course of action to slow the spread of the virus in Germany.
Because, places of worship have turned into superspreaders of the disease. And having a group of choir members spewing potentially contagious virus particles throughout a closed indoor air space for others to ingest is not a good idea. Moreover, singing allows for infectious respiratory droplets to fly further into the crowd.
In a study from the New England Journal of Medicine, it was demonstrated that Coronavirus could stay in the air and remain infectious for 3 hours (in a laboratory setting, of course). On a conservative estimate, then, COVID-19 can remain in the air up to 30 minutes in real-world situations. Moreover, normal church services are the perfect petri dish for spreading the virus because they take place indoors in often poorly ventilated facilities. This is one reason why the CDC indicates that places of worship are susceptible to becoming COVID hot spots.
Indeed, if the virus continues to spread as rapidly as it has been, then there won’t be many congregants left feeling well enough (or worse, alive enough!) to sing in the first place. What good is it to insist on your choir singing in church if the band members and parishioners are ill or dying because of it?
The simple fact is that choir singing at church can and has turned into a superspreader event, meaning large numbers of people have contracted COVID-19 as a direct result of singing in church. Take, for instance, the singing group, Skagit Valley Chorale in Skagit County, Washington where 61 congregants met for choir practice on March 10, 2020. According to the Skagit County Public Health department, just one person who was infected with Coronavirus ended up infecting 52 other choir members. The result was devastating.
53 of the 61 choir members contracted COVID-19.
3 choir members were hospitalized.
2 choir members died.
Now, granted, this superspreader event occurred before the state’s stay-at-home order was issued. But the results would be similar today. In fact, Pastor Daryl Ross of Warrior Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Alabama confirmed that 40 people are now infected with Coronavirus because they hosted a multi-day revival in July. The one-week revival had to be shut down out of fear that it was going to turn into a superspreader event.
In one German church, 59 out of 78 choir singers contracted Coronavirus.
Is singing in church during this global pandemic worth the cost if 3% of the choir members end up dying?
So what are the dangers of singing in church? Quite a lot, actually. If just one person, either in the church choir or in the general congregation, is infected with COVID-19 and that person vocally sings worship songs aloud, then they have the chance of infecting dozens more congregants with the results being forced quarantine, hospitalization, and even death.
Is singing in church once or twice a week really worth it?
Let’s Not Be Naïve about the Virus
Some pastors amusingly believe that they can trust people not to show up to church if they are sick or contagious. How naïve! As one example, Chuck Price, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Louisa, Kentucky remarked:
“I’ve been pastoring church for 20 years and I’ve never known anybody who would come to church with a fever. I’ve not had a problem of people coming to church when they’re sick. Common sense is what I think.”
There is real irony in Pastor Price insisting on having common sense. First, people show up sick all the time; just ask any parent who’s volunteered in the daycare or youth ministry for a Sunday service. Second, someone does not need to be visibly sick or show any symptoms of contagion to spread the virus. In fact, it takes at least five days and as long as two weeks before an infected person shows symptoms. And some people never show symptoms of being infected, making them more likely to spread the disease to many more people. This is what happened to one Arkansas church when a pastor and his wife superspread the virus without ever showing symptoms, infecting 35 people total in the process, hospitalizing 7, and killing 3.
What this means is that someone can show up to church, be sick and contagious, and then spread the virus to others without them evening knowing it. As one California church discovered, a congregant tested positive the day after attending church service where the person potentially exposed 180 other people to the virus.
Being supposedly “pro-life,” the American church needs to start asking some pro-life questions:
Is singing aloud in church worth the cost of church members dying?