A D.C. federal court granted a preliminary injunction motion late Friday night in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser et al., a case challenging the District of Columbia's refusal to allow outdoor religious services because of COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, the church can now plan to hold services at outdoor locations in the District, where most of its members live.
Since June, Capitol Hill Baptist has been hosting corporate worship outdoors on Sundays at a Southern Baptist church's property in Alexandria, Va., where there are less restrictive pandemic policies. The church applied for a waiver from the restriction on religious services in early June but did not receive a reply until after it filed another request on Sept. 1, according to the suit filed by the church. D.C. denied the church's request Sept. 15 and the church's members voted overwhelmingly to file the suit Sept. 20.
The court held that the "Church has shown that it is likely to succeed in proving that the District's actions impose a substantial burden on its exercise of religion." On Oct. 2, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest, challenging "the permit denial under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)." The suit from the federal department points out that outdoor protests and rallies among other things are not limited to the same 100 person limit as religious services are in D.C.
Trevor McFadden, the judge of the US Court for D.C., ruled that the current pandemic rules appear to violate the church's religious exercise rights. McFadden said that present limitations during the pandemic "substantially burden [Capitol Hill Baptist's] exercise of religion." In addition, the judge said the church "is likely to succeed in proving that [D.C.'s] actions violate" the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who filed the DOJ's statement of interest, praised the ruling in a statement: "Last night's decision is a victory for religious liberty and the rule of law. The Department of Justice is grateful the court ruled preliminarily with this in mind and is grateful that members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church will be able to worship together on Sunday."
The decision bars D.C. from enforcing its rule that restricts religious gatherings to the lower of 100 people and 50 percent of capacity, irrespective of being indoors or outdoors. The lawsuit was filed by Capitol Hill Baptist on Sept. 22nd after D.C. rejected its most recent request for a waiver considering the church's adherence to social distancing and mask-usage outdoors.
Pastor Justin Sok of Capitol Hill Baptist released a written statement, saying, "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."
"A church is not a building that can be opened or closed," Pastor Sok said in the statement. "A church is not an event to be watched. A church is a community that gathers regularly and we are thankful that such communities are once again being treated fairly by our government."
According to Sok, until earlier this year, Capitol Hill Baptist had met in person every Sunday since it was founded in 1878, except for three weeks during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
Sok also added that he was thankful for "our mayor and her dedicated efforts to protect the public health of our city while balancing the importance of various First Amendment rights."
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) also applauded the ruling as a victory for religious liberty.
"We were thrilled to see that Capitol Hill Baptist Church has received this preliminary injunction," said Travis Wussow, the ERLC's general counsel and vice president for public policy. "This is a critical step in their efforts to safely and wisely meet."
Wussow said that "the judge made note of both the church's theological convictions and their efforts to work with the city before even pursuing litigation," describing the decision as "excellent."
When asked about a similar decision on California's pandemic restrictions, President of the ERLC Roy Moore said, "This pandemic is a perilous time. We need to emerge from it with both our public safety and our First Amendment intact. We can do that, but only if elected officials and the courts take seriously the matters both of public health and of constitutional freedoms."
The church's complaint read that it "has a 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." The suit reasoned that Livestream sermons were "not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together," which was not allowed under Mayor Muriel Bowser's pandemic restriction order.
McFadden argued that D.C. did not have justification for hindering religious freedom under RFRA. The federal law says that the government must have a "compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening religious exercise."
"It ignores the Church's sincerely held (and undisputed) belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation," McFadden wrote. "The District may think that its proposed alternatives are sensible substitutes. And for many churches, they may be. 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." which is taken from Hebrews 10:25.
The district "has failed to meet its burden at this stage, as it presented little to no evidence that it has a compelling interest in applying its restrictions to ban the type of services that [Capitol Hill Baptist] wishes to hold," he wrote. "And some of the scant evidence that does appear in the record cuts against the District's arguments."
McFadden, like many others, also drew attention to the D.C. government's support for mass protests in June attended by thousands or tens of thousands of people "undermines its contention that it has a compelling interest in capping the number of attendees at the Church's outdoor services. The Mayor's apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services)."
The Washington Post wrote that D.C. responded by arguing that the protests occurred outside of their jurisdiction on federal property and were not controlled by the District's government. D.C. also argued that religious services pose a greater risk than protests, pointing to multiple known outbreaks from worship services.