A federal judge handed a Washington, D.C. church a major religious liberty victory Friday, ruling it could gather outdoors for worship services during the pandemic in spite of city restrictions.
At issue were restrictions by the city and Mayor Muriel Bowser that ban religious gatherings larger than 100 individuals, even if they are held outside.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), which had around 1,000 attendees each Sunday prior to the pandemic, sued the city and asserted the restrictions violated its rights under the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law. Its pastor is Mark Dever, a well-known author and speaker.
The congregation asked District Judge Trevor McFadden to allow it to gather outside its building, provided it practices social distancing and uses masks. McFadden agreed.
“The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion. More, the District has failed to offer evidence at this stage showing that it has a compelling interest in preventing the Church from meeting outdoors with appropriate precautions, or that this prohibition is the least-restrictive means to achieve its interest,” McFadden wrote in a 26-page opinion in issuing a preliminary injunction. The congregation likely will succeed in its suit, he wrote.
The church would have faced fines of $1,000 per violation if it had defied the city.
McFadden based his ruling on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), saying a “nearly-unanimous Congress” passed it to “bolster protections for religious liberty.”
Unlike many other churches, the congregation does not stream its sermons or have multiple services.
“The Church believes that its congregation must meet in person each Sunday to worship together,” McFadden wrote. “The Church traces its commitment in part to the scriptural exhortation that adherents should ‘not forsak[e] the assembling of ourselves together.’”
The city asserted the church “could ‘hold multiple services, host a drive-in service, or broadcast the service online or over the radio,’ as other faith communities in the District have done,” McFadden wrote.
“But the District misses the point. It ignores the Church’s sincerely held (and undisputed) belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation,” he wrote.
Referencing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, McFadden said it “is not for [the District] to say that [the Church’s] religious beliefs” are “mistaken or insubstantial.”
The city has been inconsistent in its application of bans on large gatherings, McFadden wrote. Restaurants, he noted, “currently face no limit on the number of patrons they may serve” for outdoor dining. The city also has endorsed protests, McFadden wrote.
“No matter how the protests were organized and planned, the District’s (and in particular, Mayor Bowser’s) support for at least some mass gatherings undermines its contention that it has a compelling interest in capping the number of attendees at the Church’s outdoor services,” McFadden wrote. “The Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services).”
McFadden said the church “has consistently represented that it will take appropriate precautions such as holding services outdoors, providing for social distancing, and requiring masks.”
McFadden was nominated by President Trump.
Photo courtesy: ©Kayla Koslosky
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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.