Capitol Hill Baptist Church was founded in 1878 in our nation’s capital, and has met together every Sunday since then, except for three weeks in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. In March 2020, the District of Columbia’s mayor issued an order prohibiting churches from gathering in groups of over 100, including for outdoor worship, even if they wore masks and practiced social distancing.
The 850-member church doesn’t hold online worship services, nor does it have multiple worship gatherings on Sundays. But it does take Scripture’s admonition seriously of “not neglecting to meet together.” (Hebrews 10:25 ESV).
When the city refused to grant the church any waiver from its outdoor restrictions, while simultaneously allowing tens of thousands of citizens to march in the streets during the George Floyd protests in June 2020, the church felt it was being discriminated against.
With the help of attorneys from First Liberty Institute (First Liberty), the church sued the city and its mayor in September 2020. In October, U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden issued an injunction against the city, ruling that the COVID gathering restrictions substantially burdened the church’s exercise of religion, and that the city had neither shown a compelling interest for doing so, nor shown that its prohibition was the least-restrictive means to achieve its interest.
Since then, the church has been meeting every Sunday, those original restrictions have been removed and the parties have been involved in settlement negotiations. First Liberty announced recently that those negotiations have culminated in an agreement whereby the city will pay the church the sum of $220,000 to cover its attorneys fees. The city further agreed that in the future, should another public health emergency arise, it will not impose restrictions on the church that are more restrictive than the restrictions on comparable secular activities.
“All Capitol Hill Baptist Church ever asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church,” Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel for First Liberty, said in a press release. “The church is relieved and grateful that this ordeal is behind them. Government officials need to know that illegal restrictions on First Amendment rights are intolerable and costly.”
The Capitol Hill Baptist settlement also aligns with several U.S. Supreme Court decisions since November 2020 rebuking state governments in New York and California for imposing COVID-related gathering restrictions on churches that weren’t imposed on other secular activities and locations such as businesses, shopping malls and restaurants.
The First Amendment forbids the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Treating churches more harshly during a pandemic than other activities violates that constitutional guarantee. Thanks to the efforts of First Liberty and its co-counsel, WilmerHale, LLP, Capitol Hill Baptist Church vindicated not only its religious freedom rights, but those of every church meeting in the District of Columbia.
A statement by the church from September 2020 sums it all up very nicely:
“A church is not a building that can be opened and closed. A church is not an event to be watched. A church is a community that gathers regularly and that community should be treated fairly by the District government.”
Picture from Wikipedia – Dhousch.