Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), led by Pastor Mark Dever, filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia and its Mayor, Muriel Bowser, in September.
More recently, Attorney General William Barr filed a Statement of Interest in support of the lawsuit. In a recent press release, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said, “The United States’ brief explains there is no constitutional or statutory basis for allowing protests and rallies attended by thousands of people, while at the same time silencing religious worship.”
CHBC’s lawsuit alleges that the Mayor and D.C violated the church’s First and Fifth Amendment rights with a March executive order prohibiting more than 100 people from gathering to worship – even outdoors.
Six months later, that ban is still in effect. “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 complaint says.
The church sought a waiver from the mayor in June, resubmitting the request in September, but was denied. The lawsuit alleges that COVID restrictions have been applied in a discriminatory manner.
In June, the suit says, Bowser delivered a speech at an outdoor gathering with “tens of thousands of people.” It also notes that the city has blocked off roads, “to accommodate protests and marches of thousands to tens of thousands of people,” at least four times over the summer.
The complaint points to Mayor Bowser’s statements on MSNBC, responding to a statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who called out the religious discrimination when the mayor shuts down worship, but not protests.
McConnell said, “Here in the District of Columbia, the mayor celebrates massive street protests. She actually joins them herself. But on her command, churches and houses of worship remain shut. Apparently, while protests are now permissible, prayer is still too dangerous.”
Bowser responded, “And we are following a phased reopening plan in Washington, D.C., and we are in phase one. We’re reopening our city safely and according to the science. Now, First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same. And that’s why we don’t see our cities opened up to all of the massive events. Now, in the United States of America, people can protest.”
While defending “First Amendment protests,” the mayor disregarded that Amendment’s important guarantee of religious freedom.
“The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, in the press release.
Dreiband continued, “We are a nation dedicated to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The District of Columbia has, unfortunately, neglected these rights. The Justice Department is committed to defending both of these fundamental freedoms and in supporting all Americans’ rights to worship as they choose.”
Capitol Hill Baptist plans to meet outdoors this Sunday, October 11, in Alexandria, Virginia – outside of D.C. The church also offers seminars and Bible studies, for smaller groups, in its building. Members register ahead of time and submit a statement saying they acknowledge the potential health risks of attending and affirm that they have no coronavirus symptoms.
In a short video called “Why Christians Gather,” Dever said, “Christianity always has been a religion which gathers.” From its very beginnings, he explained, Christians met together – whether at the temple in Jerusalem, in homes or in rented halls.
Dever concluded, “Ultimately the church is not something we want to be in – as a building. It’s a people we want to be with. So that’s why we Christians always gather, so that we can be with the people of God and do the things that Jesus has called us to do.”
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