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Explainer: How should Christians think about singing in church during COVID-19?

For Christians, singing together in corporate worship is about more than entertainment or even tradition. Christians are commanded to sing together, offering their praises unto God, when they gather for worship (Psalm 68:4-5, Col. 3:16). And throughout their long history, the people of God have been a singing people.

In light of COVID-19, the Trump administration earlier this year, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released guidance for churches that encouraged them to “consider temporarily suspending singing, chanting, or shouting during events especially when participants are in close proximity to each other.”

As the COVID-19 outbreak persisted and even escalated in some parts of the country, various state and local authorities have provided directions consistent with the above guidance from the Trump administration. However, there are instances in California and New Mexico where officials have taken actions that move beyond guidance and instead have issued what appear to be bans on singing in worship services.

In California, the American Center for Law and Justice has sued the state of California over its new guidance. However, the conservative Pacific Legal Institute sent a letter to California pastors arguing that the new guidance from California is just that—guidance—pointing to the fact that the document is not in the form of an order, is not signed by a government official, and does not cite any legal authority.

In any event, government orders that touch on the liturgical elements of worship services, understandably, prompt questions about the proper spheres of church and state. The Baptist Faith and Message says, “Church and state should be separate.” 

Is a government prohibition on singing a violation of religious liberty?

Yes, except in extraordinary circumstances. Should such circumstances arise, such as a global pandemic, the key lens to assess the potential violation is whether government officials are treating houses of worship the same as similar activities, spaces, or businesses.

The First Amendment provides broad and strong protections for religious exercise, and governments should ordinarily avoid any interference with a church’s worship practices. For this reason, we have repeatedly counseled throughout this pandemic that civic leaders must regularly assess whether exemptions are applied consistently and in a way that respects First Amendment protections for churches. 

The same applies to singing. If orders against singing exempt some businesses or activities (that are truly commensurate to churches) and not churches, this would be an instance of treating houses of worship unequally from other similarly situated entities.

As Russell Moore put it in his recent article, “How do you know if your religious liberty is violated?”:

Could a government allow gatherings of people to assemble at houses of worship as long as there is a temporary suspension of singing? Perhaps, if the government shows reasonably that singing could faster spread the virus, thus endangering people in the community and if the same sort of mandate applies to concerts or glee clubs or musical dramas or marching bands or half-time sports shows. In short, the government could not say that singing must be suspended indefinitely—to keep any future virus from taking hold—because weekly singing isn’t “essential,” in their view. And the government could not allow a community presentation of Beauty and the Beast while prohibiting a Christmas cantata at First Methodist Church. 

Should church services be treated the same as other public gatherings?

Yes. Insofar as church services and public gatherings are similar to one another, they must be treated equally. The same constitutional amendment that protects the freedoms of speech and assembly also protects the freedom of religious exercise.

So whether it is public gatherings such as patriotic celebrations, marches, demonstrations, or church activities, all of them need to be treated the same in terms of public health and that should not be dependent on the purpose of the gathering.

A number of Christian leaders have pointed to the fact that outdoor demonstrations have been allowed, while indoor church services are restricted in various ways.

Adding to this inconsistency are examples where public health officials have weighed in on matters beyond the scope of epidemiology. For example, it was unhelpful when a group of public health experts, many of whom are affiliated with the University of Washington, signed a letter that suggested that COVID-19 guidelines should be suspended for certain kinds of gatherings. To be clear, the First Amendment does not draw such a distinction. Even though the government does have the power to curtail activities protected by the First Amendment in times of national emergency, it is imperative that such restrictions be evenly applied.

Still, many top public health officials did recognize both the ongoing threat and indiscriminate nature of the virus and continued to raise concerns about the spread of COVID-19 during the racial justice protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, though their comments were not covered as widely as the University of Washington letter.

Finally, it is worth underscoring this point: A number of gatherings and marches have happened almost entirely outdoors. Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 is 20 times less likely to be transmitted outdoors. This could be the reason that it does not seem that racial justice protests have led to an increase in the spread of COVID-19.

Even if it’s legal, should governments prohibit singing in churches?

We believe that pastors and churches can be trusted to love their neighbors and their brothers and sisters in Christ during this pandemic. And so, we have repeatedly said that when it comes to houses of worship, the government should issue guidance and guidelines rather than mandates and threats. Religious leaders and civic leaders are co-equal partners in the fight against COVID-19, and when the government issues mandates without engagement with the faith community, we believe the spirit of that partnership is eroded.

With that said, we have been in touch with hundreds of pastors around the country, and the daily conflict on social media does not reflect what is actually happening in many communities. In most places, there is a strong partnership, and governments have been responsive to concerns raised by the faith community throughout this public health crisis.

It should not be necessary for governments to prohibit singing in church services. More broadly, it should not be necessary for governments to direct any aspect of church actions within a worship service. We believe the First Amendment provides the framework for both the church and state spheres to successfully navigate this crisis, together, without resorting to threats and legal action.

How should churches approach singing during worship services?

Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, churches will need to carefully consider how to ensure that worship services do not result in the spread of the virus.  

Church leaders should consider ways to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 during their worship services. Based on what we know about the transmission of the virus at the date of publication of this piece, indoor, air-conditioned services that generally take between one and one and a half hours in close quarters seem to provide an ideal setting for the spread of COVID-19 unless measures are taken to limit the spread of the disease, such as social distancing and wearing masks. Singing, or any projection of a person’s voice, significantly increases the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Pastors and church leaders will need to assess this risk carefully as they plan and coordinate their worship gatherings over the next several months.

Overall, during church activities of any kind, preventing the transmission of COVID-19 is an absolute necessity. One question to ask of every activity is “If one or more of the participants is carrying the virus, will this activity cause the disease to spread at our church?” 

Every church is different. Whether singing during worship services increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 depends on the size of the congregation, the size of the sanctuary or meeting space, ventilation, and what other measures are being taken to mitigate potential transmission of the virus.

In thinking through all scenarios, we would again point to the CDC guidance for community and faith-based organizations. We believe it provides a helpful framework for churches. Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, commented, “The CDC guidance seems reasonable and helpful to me. The tone is, appropriately, not a directive to churches but counsel based on the medical data . . . most congregations are already on top of thinking through these issues. People want to be confident that when their church reopens every reasonable precaution is taken, and that’s exactly what I see church leaders doing.”

F. Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood was elected as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2022, after a year of leading the organization as acting president. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He brings an expertise in public … Read More

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as Director of Content and Chair of Research in Christian Ethics. He holds an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. in Public Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24