Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

State to worshippers: Don’t make a joyful noise

Religious Liberty | Churches sue after California curtails public worship again
by Steve West
Posted 7/21/20, 04:03 pm

Last Monday between 300 and 400 protesters gathered on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But they didn’t shout “defund the police”—they worshiped, sang, and prayed, reported Fox News.

The demonstrators were protesting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to ban singing and chanting in churches. The move has sparked concern that other states may reimpose worship restrictions due to a surge of new COVID-19 cases. A trio of California churches sued on Wednesday, calling the rule an unconstitutional abuse of power.

Calvary Chapel of Ukiah, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg, and Oroville’s River of Life Church contend that Newsom’s July 1 guidance banning singing violates their right to the free exercise of religion. The churches point out the state hasn’t restricted singing or chanting at protests or at nonessential businesses such as day camps, schools, and music and television studios.

“Singing and praying aloud as a body of Christ is an integral part of worship for believers,” the churches said in the 20-page complaint. “To prohibit group singing and chanting is to effectively prohibit corporate Christian worship.” The American Center for Law and Justice represents the churches.

Newsom, a Democrat, lifted worship restrictions on May 25 but reinstituted them after an increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. The state argues church singing could spread the coronavirus through aerosol particles, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed the guidance that sparked that concern from its website in late May. On July 13, Newsom resurrected a gathering ban on all worship and other “nonessential businesses” in more than half of the state’s counties. A separate group of churches on Friday challenged those broader restrictions.

Newsom has supported anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd even though they violate California’s mass gathering ban. The three churches challenging the singing restriction noted the governor encouraged the protests, saying in a news conference, “To those of you who want to express yourselves … God bless you. Keep doing it. Your rage is real.”

That inconsistent message is not lost on churches. Becket attorney William Haun said California should not single out singing in worship more than in other contexts: “Like we said in a Wisconsin case we handled, ‘The First Amendment protects both prayer and protest, and governments don’t get to pick and choose.’”

Haun noted that many states have taken a more cooperative approach to church during the pandemic. In Minnesota, Becket assisted Lutheran and Catholic churches in reaching a compromise with Gov. Tim Walz allowing them to reopen at reduced capacity. In New Mexico, which originally restricted in-person worship to five people, churches can now meet at 25 percent capacity. And even in Texas, where cases have surged, churches remain open. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton even issued a guidance letter on Friday telling religious private schools that local orders attempting to restrict reopening are invalid.

“What you see across the country is a recognition that religion is a crucial part of the lives of most Americans, and so worship should only be suspended in the most extreme of situations,” Haun said. That’s a message it seems California has yet to grasp.

Alliance Defending Freedom Alliance Defending Freedom Dr. Dovid Schwartz

Censorship costs

New York City has settled with an Orthodox Jewish psychotherapist for $100,000 to cover legal fees and expenses related to a 2018 ordinance banning so-called “gay conversion” therapy.

Dr. Dovid Schwartz sued in January 2019, contending the city violated the First Amendment by barring him from even talking with someone about unwanted same-sex attraction.

While opponents of such counseling often focus on horror stories of “shock” therapies and other unethical practices, Schwartz said he only listens and talks to clients. “Politicians have no right to censor my conversations with patients,” he wrote. “They have no right to intimidate my friends and colleagues into silence or force them to offer professional advice that only affirms same-sex behavior and identity.”

The city repealed the law last September, but many states and cities have similar, though often more narrowly crafted, restrictions on therapy for people who don’t want to be attracted to the same sex. Tampa, Fla., prohibited licensed counselors from providing voluntary talk therapy to minors with unwanted same-sex attractions. Marriage and family therapist Robert Vazzo is fighting the ordinance after the city appealed a federal court ruling striking it down.

“Sexuality is complicated,” Schwartz said. “Human nature is complicated. Because of this complexity, my patients deserve the option of therapy that isn’t censored by the government or disrupted by politics.” —S.W.

Facebook/University of Wisconsin-River Falls Facebook/University of Wisconsin-River Falls The University of Wisconsin-River Falls campus

Beach ball ban kicked

In September 2019, freshman Sofie Salmon and some friends rolled around an oversized ball and invited students to write on it to promote free speech at the River Falls campus of the University of Wisconsin. School administrators told her she either needed to register as a student club or get advance permission.

The university backed down after receiving a letter from Alliance Defending Freedom counsel Caleb Dalton. It released a new policy this month affirming students’ right to gather and express themselves and removing any requirement to reserve time or space or belong to an official club.

University free speech zones have fallen from favor after facing many First Amendment challenges. A May 2019 study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that between 2013 and 2018, the ratio of schools with free speech zones dropped from 1 in 6 to 1 in 10. FIRE reported 17 states prohibit campus free speech restrictions. —S.W.

Romanian churches press on

Romanian-language churches in Chicago continue to seek a court order barring Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker from reimposing his gathering ban that effectively shuttered churches for months. A federal appeals court panel upheld a lower court ruling denying the churches’ requests for an injunction. The churches filed a petition asking the court’s full complement of judges to hear their case. Pritzker, a Democrat, removed all restrictions on churches after the lawsuit was filed, but the plaintiffs argue he failed to make it absolutely clear that he would not reimpose the ban. —S.W.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  • Narissara
    Posted: Tue, 07/21/2020 06:46 pm

    Re "Censoship costs" -- when we talk shock therapy are we talking about the same electroconvulsive therapy (ECT treatment) that is currently used to treat anxiety and depression?  If so, why is it so horrifying and unethical to treat people with unwanted same-sex attraction but it's a perfectly acceptable practice for elderly patients suffering from anxiety and depression, even when they don't want it?  

    When the procedure was first explained to me, the practitioner assured me ECT is not the same as the atrocious "shock treatments" that were administered in days gone by to "cure" same-sex attraction and other unwanted behaviors.  But then he admitted that it essentially induces the equivalent a grand mal seizure, which everyone knows can cause traumatic brain injury.  

    Practitioners have managed to convince the FDA it's a safe and effective treatment.  The reality is, it's a very lucrative procedure that doesn't work.  And it is barbaric. The fact of the matter is, patients who suffer from unwanted same sex attraction aren't as likely to be subjected to it because they usually have the strength and presence of mind to say no.  Little old ladies often do not.  

    I watched helplessly as a loved one was subjected to extreme pressure both from other family members and treating physicians into giving consent.  My voice was drowned out because they had the weight of professional medical opinion on their side.  Pleas to find alternative treatments continue to fall on deaf ears.  She supposedly can stop the treatments "any time she wants," but every time she has a setback, she gets shuttled back to the behavioral health unit for more ECT treatments. 

     It's a practice that needs to be banned.  Period.  It's silly to argue against its atrocities for one class of citizens but not all.  But that gets lost in the discussion about "gay conversion" therapy because we can't get past arguing about whether or not unwanted same sex attraction is treatable at all.  

    Posted: Wed, 07/22/2020 12:49 am

    How heartbreaking that your family member is being subjected to such "treatments" -- and that you have been forced to witness it! I weep for both of you.

  • not silent
    Posted: Thu, 07/23/2020 08:39 am

    Narissara, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to have a family member undergoing something when you feel it is inappropriate.  I can sense your compassion and frustration, and I'm sorry your family is going throught this. 

    But not everyone who is treated with ECT has a terrible experience with it.  I have family members and friends who struggle with mental illness; and, while my family members have not experienced ECT, the people I've met who DID have it said they loved it and that it greatly helped their depression.  I'm sure it doesn't always work, but sometimes it DOES work.  Sometimes it's the ONLY thing that works.  It is not without side effects, but a lot of psychiatric medications have very serious side effects-particularly with the elderly.

     I'm not sure if you have personally experienced mental illness; but those who have can tell you that, when depression is severe, the pain can be so great the person can become irrational and willing to go to ANY LENGTHS to stop it-even take their own life. I don't know if this is the case with your family member; but, if someone with mental illness is in serious danger of taking their own life, the family may resort to extreme treatments to protect them.  I have lived with suicidal family members, and it is terrifying.  

    Another thing that has happened in my family is that people who lived a thousand miles away tried to interfere with the treatment of one member who was mentally ill because they were convinced they knew better than the person who was sick, that person's husband, or the entire treatment team. They said they were trying to "save" her from inappropriate treatment; but, in reality, they were full of misconceptions and their actions caused additional pain and made the situation worse. Because that family member had several setbacks, people often questioned her treatment decisions.  Well-meaning Christians urged her to stop medications, stop therapy, and just rely on prayer. What they didn't realize was that she WAS relying on prayer and believed that God was leading her and working THROUGH medications and therapy.  It took a long time, but she is off almost all meds and doing well today. 

    Mental illness is complicated and there are often set-backs, even in sucessful cases.  Sometimes treatment is only partially effective; but, for someone who is in terrible emotional pain, partial effectiveness is better than nothing.

    Please understand that I am not saying or implying that my family situation is the same as yours.  I was responding to your comment that ECT is barbaric and ineffective based on the experiences of your family and trying to show that the experiences of others have been different.  I'm sorry about your family, and I pray things get better.           

  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 07/23/2020 09:28 am

    Thank you, Hannah and not silent.  The usual reaction I get when I tell people I know someone who's receiving ECT treatment is wide-eyed surprise that the procedure is still in use.  That was the reason for sharing such a personal story.  

    I have a feeling when most people hear the objections to gay conversion therapy, they dismiss concerns about shock therapy as mere fear-mongering based on treatments that have long since been discarded.  I don't know if there can ever be any honest discussion about the issue, because I don't think the LGBTQ crowd is interested.  But if we ever hope to have one, we need to be aware this procedure still exists and acknowledge their fears about being pushed into it might be legitimate. 

  • not silent
    Posted: Thu, 07/23/2020 01:20 pm

    To Narissara, I think you make a very good point about "conversion therapy," in that we should not be too quick to minimize its potential horrors or the pain it has caused.   But I think there has been a lot of confusion with terminlogy which has clouded the issue.  I read a memoir by someone who experienced conversion therapy, and the "shock therapy" that was used was NOT ECT.  With ECT, as it is currently used in the US, a person is sedated and a seizure is induced while they are unconscious; and, in some cases, they experience an improvement in mood.  The "shock therapy" that was described in the memoir about conversion therapy was more like "aversion therapy" because the person was exposed to something that would normally produce a pleasurable response and they were given a painful shock or made to vomit so that they would associate the stimulus with pain and/or disgust instead of with pleasure.  Let me add that I personally think being shocked or made to vomit would be very painful and/or traumatic, and I understand why people want things like THAT banned.

     ECT may have been used in some versions of conversion therapy, and I think most would agree the version of ECT that was practiced in the 50's and 60's was horrible.  However, I just did a search, and the only thing I could find about ECT and conversion therapy in RECENT years was a note on one site saying that it "may have been used" in countries like India or Iran and that it was done without anesthesia (which would definitely be torture).  Most sources which discussed "shock treatments" in the context of conversion therapy described not ECT but the process I referred to above as "aversion therapy."  

    I'm not trying to be a "know it all" or get too nit picky; I just get very frustrated when people misuse or confuse terminology that has to do with mental illness. It happens all the time and it add to common misconceptions about mental illness and increases the pain and sigma experienced by people with mental illness.    


  • JerryM
    Posted: Tue, 07/21/2020 07:55 pm

    There are few places where you get this reporting together in one article.  Thanks, Steve, and World for the important work you are doing.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Thu, 07/23/2020 04:47 pm

    In regards to the article on singing in churches, the strange thing about the singing ban is that Newsom is essentially saying that social-distancing and masks don't work. Most churches were implementing both, so what was the problem? Either these measures are effective, or they aren't. He can't pick and choose when safetly measures work and don't work.

  • OldMike
    Posted: Fri, 07/24/2020 12:34 am

    I think there is ample evidence that Newsom is not really capable of logical thinking. 

  • Sun shine
    Posted: Tue, 07/28/2020 12:48 pm

    I am so happy to see churches that are standing up to state legislation.  In Denver, CO multiple PCA churches still are not meeting due to state mandates.  It makes me so sad to see how fearful people, who profess faith, are of death and disease.  However, it gives me hope to see others around the state and in other states standing up and demanding a right to worship the God of the universe!