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Federal Judge Tells DC Mayor She Canít Restrict Capitol Hill Baptist Church Services

Mark Tapscott

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A federal judge granted Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s request for a preliminary injunction against District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, allowing the congregation to resume worship services.

“The Court determines that the church is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions violate [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993] RFRA,” wrote U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Trevor McFadden in a decision late on Oct. 9.

“The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the church’s exercise of religion,” McFadden wrote. “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. The Court will therefore grant the Church’s motion for injunctive relief.”

Senior Pastor Mark Dever and the 850-member congregation, which has held worship services every Sunday since 1878 (except for three weeks during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic), had sought unsuccessfully since March a compromise with Bowser and D.C. government that would allow it to continue meeting.

While its historic building is located only a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol complex, the congregation has recently been meeting in an open field near Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

The mayor had banned all indoor and outdoor church gatherings of 100 or more persons in response to the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, that has killed more than 214,000 Americans. The ban applied even if participants wore masks and socially distanced.

But CHBC officials told the court that congregational worship meetings are required by its understanding of the Bible, and, for that reason, it hasn’t provided a digital alternative to in-person attendance.

The church filed suit against Bowser and D.C. government Sept. 22, in litigation that was prepared by the Plano, Texas-based First Liberty Institute.

“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 church said in its suit.

McFadden ruled that “the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly presented unique challenges to governments, which are tasked with balancing the public safety and religious freedom. The Court acknowledges the difficult decisions facing the Mayor here. But Congress set rules for this sort of balancing when it enacted RFRA.”

He said, “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. For its part, the District has not shown that it is likely to prove a compelling interest in prohibiting the church from holding outdoor worship services with appropriate precautions, or that its restrictions are the least restrictive means available to achieve its public health objectives.”

Congress isn’t permitted by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to pass laws regulating freedom of religion or establishing an official religious doctrine.

 D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser attends a press conference in Washington, on June 10, 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The RFRA requires that the least restrictive possible methods be used in rare cases, such as public health emergencies that require some limitations on church activities.

“All Capitol Hill Baptist Church has asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church,” First Liberty executive general counsel Hiram Gasser told The Epoch Times on Oc. 10.
“As Judge McFadden explained, if D.C. officials have evidence showing that Christians gathering together to worship a risen Savior is of greater risk than protests and outdoor movie theaters, the church would gladly consider it.  Since none has been provided, to require something of churches that is not required of other First Amendment activities is wrong.”

Earlier this month, 34 Republican senators submitted an amicus curiae brief to McFadden’s court, saying, “whether viewed as a matter of free speech, the freedom of assembly, or the free exercise of religion protected by the Constitution and RFRA, the result is the same:

“The Mayor’s discrimination against houses of worship rests on a mistaken, and unconstitutional, premise that one particular exercise of free speech—a church’s desire to gather together and worship their God—is subordinate to other First Amendment-protected activities.”

The Department of Justice has also joined the litigation on the side of the church, filing a Statement of Interest that pointedly noted Bowser had participated in numerous outdoor protest meetings earlier in the year that violated her edict.

“To be put simply, Defendants’ current approach to [CCP virus] limitations has the effect of treating some forms of protected First Amendment activity differently than other forms of comparable activity and in so doing singles out religious exercise for different treatment,” the 24-page brief states.

The win for CHBC comes amid a growing controversy nationwide in which churches challenge what they believe to be illegal or unconstitutional restrictions on their activities.

Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel San Jose in Califorrnia has been fined more than $200,000 for holding indoor services since May 31; he’s challenging the levies in court.