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Church first to sue D.C. over COVID restrictions

Christina Darnell

Capitol Hill Baptist Church this week became the first church to file suit against D.C. over pandemic-related restrictions on worship services and mass gatherings, citing violations of First and Fifth Amendment rights.

The 850-member evangelical church, founded in 1878, filed the complaint Tuesday (Sept. 22), according to the Washington Post, and challenged the mayor’s support of massive anti-racism protests while denying the church’s application to hold services outdoors.

It noted that Mayor Muriel Bowser personally attended a protest on June 6 with “tens of thousands of people at the corner of 16th and H Streets” where she delivered a speech and called the gathering “wonderful to see.” That, despite her own executive order that limits outdoor gatherings to 100 people. D.C. police also closed streets to accommodate protests with thousands of people.

“The Church takes no issue with Defendants’ decision to permit these gatherings, which are themselves protected by the First Amendment, and the Church supports this exercise of First Amendment rights. The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants’ decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others,” the suit said. “The First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship. But Mayor Bowser, by her own admission, has preferred the former over the latter.”

When the church filed for a waiver in June and again in September to hold outdoor services, the district rejected the applications.

“Faced with the District’s discriminatory treatment and with no end in sight to the legal ban on worship gatherings, CHBC’s membership reluctantly voted to initiate this lawsuit to reclaim their most fundamental of rights: the right to gather for corporate worship free from threat of government sanction.”

While challenging the government’s restrictions on worship services generally, the church is specifically fighting for permission to meet outdoors with social distancing measures in place, such as masks and physical distance. Under the district’s current pandemic plan, worship gatherings wouldn’t be allowed to resume until a vaccine is widely available.

Before the pandemic, CHBC held one service in one location, choosing to prioritize gathering as a “whole congregation,” saying that “without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically ordered church.” Senior Pastor Mark Dever also chose not to live stream services during the pandemic because “a video of the sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together.”

The suit says CHBC is requesting permission to meet this Sunday, Sept. 27, because of their “sincerely held religious belief that the physical, corporate gathering of its entire congregation each Sunday is a central element of religious worship commanded by the Lord.”

When asked why Bowser favors mass protests over religious worship, she responded, “First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same…in the United States of America, people can protest.”

In response, the suit states, “In the United States of America, people can gather for worship under the First Amendment as well.”

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Christina Darnell
Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.

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