A prominent Washington, D.C. church filed suit against the city and its mayor Tuesday, seeking to overturn a ban on mass gatherings that prohibits congregations from meeting not only indoors but also outdoors during the pandemic.
The lawsuit by Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) against Mayor Muriel Bowser says the city’s current ban on in-person church gatherings of more than 100 people violates the church’s rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fifth Amendments, including its rights to assemble and worship without government interference. Prior to the pandemic, the church had around 1,000 attendees on a Sunday. Its pastor, Mark Dever, has authored several books.
According to the Washington Post, the suit, filed in federal court, requests an injunction against the city. Significantly, the suit says the church should be able to meet in D.C. “if conducted with appropriate social distancing practices.”
Under current D.C. rules, the church won’t be able to meet in the city until a vaccine is developed, according to the suit.
The mayor and the city “have specifically and explicitly targeted in-person religious gatherings,” the suit says. Because of that, the restrictions are “not neutral on their face.”
Capitol Hill has been meeting at locations outside the city.
“The Mayor’s orders prohibit gatherings of over 100 people for purposes of worship, even if held outdoors and even if worshippers wear masks and practice appropriate social distancing,” the suit says. “Under the District’s four-stage plan, CHBC’s in-person worship gatherings will be prohibited until scientists develop either a widely-available vaccine or an effective therapy for COVID-19.”
The city has been “discriminatory” in its application of the mass gathering ban because it has allowed protests, the suit says.
“For example, on June 6, 2020, Mayor Bowser appeared personally at an outdoor gathering of tens of thousands of people at the corner of 16th and H Streets, NW and delivered a speech describing the large gathering as ‘wonderful to see.’ Similarly, on four occasions between June and August 2020, the District’s Metropolitan Police Department closed city streets to accommodate protests and marches of thousands to tens of thousands of people,” the suit says. “And only three weeks ago, the Mayor coordinated with organizers of the Commitment March on Washington to ‘re-imagine’ the five-hour event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for several thousand people in attendance to hear an array of speakers.”
Capitol Hill Baptist “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 suit says.
“The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants’ decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others,” the suit 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.”
Photo courtesy: Creative Commons/Dhousch
Video courtesy: Capitol Hill Baptist Church
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.