During the weekend, Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry filed suit against Governor Gavin Newsom, seeking a temporary restraining order against the Governor’s house of worship singing and chanting ban.
The Harvest Rock Church and Liberty Council lawsuit
In the lawsuit, Harvest Rock claims that the new public health rules against singing unfairly go after houses of worship over other places, most notably the recent George Floyd protests in which chanting and singing were featured prominently. The suit specifically argues that the ban goes against the First Amendment, violating the freedom of religion.
Harvest Rock also alleges that being unable to sing would be “disobedience to the Lord” and would harm them spiritually.
“The Governor cannot claim a compelling, legitimate, or even rational interest in his orders when he has permitted and encouraged mass gatherings of thousands of protesters to engage in the very activity he claims poses a massive danger to California if it takes place in Plaintiffs’ churches,” says the suit. “Harvest Rock cannot fulfill its vital ministry and sincere religious beliefs without gathering together in person, and that it cannot effectively engage in its constitutionally protected free exercise of religion on the internet.
“These are cherished liberties for which so many have fought and died. This is disobedience to the Lord for which Harvest Rock will be held divinely accountable.”
Harvest Rock, which has 162 churches in California, is represented by Liberty Council, an evangelical pro bono legal assistance group in Florida. In addition to the singing ban, the organization has also come out against California’s restriction on in-person indoor services.
“Newsom encourages tens of thousands of people to gather for mass protests, he bans all in-person worship and home Bible studies and fellowship. Such repression is well-known in despotic governments, and it is shocking that even home fellowship is banned in America,” Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver said in a statement. “This outrage will not stand!”
The church itself noted the upcoming suit during services on Sunday. Lead Pastor Che Ahn defended the churches position saying that “I want us to pray right now that we will win that court case. No one is above the Constitution. No one is above the law. As a pastor, I believe we’ve been essential for 2,000 years.”
“I just feel the hypocrisy of encouraging protests. We are all for that but let’s just be consistent.”
Defense of the ban, a second singing ban lawsuit
California and Governor Newsom have contended that the singing and chanting ban, as well as the stoppage of in-person services, are in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Health experts have agreed, saying that increased respiratory droplets from singing would lead to greater infection.
“I’ve seen enough people contract COVID-19 to know that this gets passed down a lot quicker by close contact and people opening their mouths more,” said retirement home nurse Norah Regis in an interview with the California Globe. “Seventy percent of our patients who contracted COVID-19 were traced back to churches. Seventy percent . For most residents, this is the only out-of-home, public event they go to all week besides maybe a shopping trip or two.”
“And before when services were shuttered, COVID-19 rates dropped, almost by the exact same percentage. It’s not hard to see the correlation.”
In a previous interview with the Globe, Regis expanded upon that, noting “It’s not an attack on religion. It’s just a way to keep people safe and to lessen the risk of vulnerable people, such as the elderly and those more likely to get it, such as my residents I look after.”
District Courts and the Supreme Court ruled in May that states can legally stop in-person religious services for emergency health and wellness reasons. However, due to the new singing and chanting rule, numerous lawsuits have been filed over that aspect of the ban. Harvest Rock was only the latest singing-ban suit, joining a lawsuit by three Northern Californian churches challenging the singing ban.
“They lost on the general in-person service ban,” noted Los Angeles lawyer Roberto Pena to the Globe. “They can’t really bring that up again unless they want to go to the Supreme Court. So they’re looking at something else that effects them, and that’s singing together.”
“It’s in the hands of the courts now, so we’ll see where it goes.”