Court Rules in Favor of D.C. Church
A judge said city limitations are causing a ‘substantial burden’ on Capitol Hill Baptist under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
A district court has temporarily granted a request from a Washington, D.C., Southern Baptist church to gather for outdoor worship services that violate the city’s rules for public gatherings.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church argued that the District of Columbia’s COVID-19 restrictions had violated its constitutional rights and was causing “irreparable harm” to its congregation.
Judge Trevor McFadden, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, agreed in a Friday (Oct. 9) ruling.
“Given the District’s restrictions, the Church now must choose between violating the law or violating its religious convictions,” he said.
McFadden said the limitations are causing a “substantial burden” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law enacted in 1993 that aims to protect against government interference with religious beliefs.
In September, 850-member Capitol Hill Baptist became the first church in D.C. to file suit after the district denied Capitol Hill Baptists multiple applications to hold services outdoors with social distancing measures in place.
Under current district rules, places of worship are encouraged to hold virtual services and, whether they meet inside or outside, may host 100 persons or only 50 percent of the capacity of the space they are meeting in, whichever is fewer.
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 church has been meeting since June in an outdoor space in Alexandria, Virginia. It told the court, however, that most of its members live in the district, and many do not have vehicles to get them to worship in the current location.
The congregation, which dates to 1878, has met for Sunday services except for a three-week period during the height of the Spanish flu in 1918.
Capitol Hill Baptist responded to the court decision saying it would seek an outdoor venue to start weekly gatherings in Washington as soon as Oct. 18.
“We continue to appreciate our mayor and her dedicated efforts to protect the public health of our city while balancing the importance of various First Amendment rights,” said the Rev. Justin Sok, a pastor of the church, in a statement. “With this ruling, our government is restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic.”
The judge said, “the District misses the point,” when it proposed the church should consider other “methods” of worship, such as a drive-in service, multiple services or services online.
“It ignores the Church’s sincerely held (and undisputed) belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation,” the court said.
“It is for the Church, not the District or this Court, to define for itself the meaning of ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,’” McFadden wrote, quoting from Hebrews.
The church requested a waiver in June and again in September to hold outdoor services that were both denied, despite commitments by the congregation to wear masks and socially distance by family. Meanwhile, Mayor Muriel Bowser personally attended a Black Lives Matter 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.” The district argued that it could not control protests on federal land and argued that religious services posed a greater infection risk.
“The Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services),” the judge said. “Her actions speak volumes.”
The ruling comes two days after a group of 34 U.S. Senators filed a motion on behalf of Capitol Hill Baptist requesting the court enforce a preliminary injunction against Bowser and the district from “prohibiting outdoor religious services that adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols.”
“Under the Mayor’s directives, a pastor may conduct a massive organized outdoor political demonstration on a Saturday, but may not hold an outdoor church service for his congregants the next morning. Such selective enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions against houses of worship violates a core tenet of free speech,” the senators’ brief stated.
The senators called on Bowser to “recognize all First Amendment-activity as equal, and draw any necessary distinctions—consistent with the First Amendment—without regard to the identity of the speaker or the content of her message.”
Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report.