Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which has been meeting outside the city since March, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the district, challenging its ban on indoor and outdoor religious services of more than 100 people while other large public gatherings, including mass protests, have been allowed and even facilitated by the city.
Led by Pastor Mark Dever, Capitol Hill Baptist, by conviction, holds only one Sunday morning worship service for the congregation that usually draws around 1,000 people, and doesn’t offer virtual worship, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit comes after the district rejected two waiver requests from the church this summer.
The district’s ban on religious gatherings over 100 people applies to both indoor and outdoor services even “if conducted with appropriate social distancing practices.”
“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,” the lawsuit reads, “to reclaim their most fundamental of rights: the right to gather for corporate worship free from threat of governmental sanction.
“The district’s now six-month ban on CHBC’s religious gatherings, even if held outdoors with appropriate precautions, violates RFRA [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] and the First and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
According to Washington, D.C.’s long-term plan to combat the spread of coronavirus, religious gatherings of more than 100 people won’t be allowed until either a vaccine or effective COVID-19 treatment is widely available.
Since March, while religious and other groups have been prevented from meeting, the district has granted permission for mass protests and several large gatherings on the National Mall. On June 6, Mayor Muriel Bowser attended a Black Lives Matter protest on the corner of 16th and H Streets, NW, and “delivered a speech describing the large gathering as ‘wonderful to see,’” the lawsuit says.
Additionally, district police closed streets to accommodate protests on at least four occasions between June and August, and the mayor helped coordinate plans for the five-hour commemoration on Aug. 28 of the 1963 March on Washington, which drew several thousand participants to the Lincoln Memorial.
The church is clear that it supports the constitutional right of non-church groups to gather for mass events.
“The church does, however, take exception to defendants’ decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others,” the lawsuit says. “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 asked why she celebrates mass protests while houses of worship remain closed, she responded that ‘First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same’ because ‘in the United States of America, people can protest.’ In the United States of America, people can gather for worship under the First Amendment as well.”
Capitol Hill Baptist’s struggle with local authorities brings it into company with several other large churches around the nation, although Capitol Hill has resisted civil disobedience up to this point.
In California particularly, some churches have resisted government efforts to prevent indoor services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most prominent has been Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, led by Pastor John MacArthur, which has been embroiled in a face-off with Los Angeles County. In August, the county sought to bar the church from holding indoor services unless it conformed to “mandates … to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing.” It has continued holding services, despite a Sept. 10 preliminary injunction granted by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge.
Meanwhile, Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, led by Pastor Greg Laurie, has found creative ways to comply with COVID-19 mandates, taking advantage of Southern California’s warm weather by holding outdoor services in a large tent and requiring masks and social distancing.
The debate over which businesses are “essential” boiled over in Nevada this summer when a group of churches sued for discrimination after worship venues were prevented from meeting but casinos remained open. Consequently, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the state had the right to impose tighter restrictions on churches than casinos, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four liberal justices in the decision.
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