A Protestant church suing the District of Columbia over coronavirus restrictions held an outdoor service on Sunday, following a court injunction permitting the socially-distanced service.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which is one of the largest in Washington, DC, sued the district in September, saying that it unfairly targeted religious institutions by capping outdoor gatherings at 100 people, but permitting larger gatherings for other purposes.
The church was denied a permit to use the nearby R.F.K. Stadium’s parking lots for services, but the city permitted a pop-up drive-in movie theatre to use the same location.
In a ruling issued Friday, Judge Trevor McFadden of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia said that Washington, D.C.’s pandemic reopening restrictions do “substantially burden the church’s exercise of religion” and that “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.”
Previously, the church had been forced to meet across the river in Virginia, where there are fewer restrictions. They will now move to outdoor spots in the District of Columbia.
The church’s leader, Pastor Justin Sok, said that the injunction was “restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic.”
Capitol Hill Baptist Church has a congregation of approximately 1,000. The church does not offer online services or have multiple services each Sunday, believing that a “biblically ordered church regularly gathers the whole congregation,” and that a church without regular meetings of all members of the congregation “ceases to be a biblically ordered church.”
The church “thus has a sincerely held religious belief that the physical, corporate gathering of its entire congregation each Sunday is a central element of religious worship commanded by the Lord,” said the lawsuit. “(Capitol Hill Baptist Church) desires to gather for a physical, corporate gathering of believers in the District of Columbia on Sunday, September 27, 2020, and on subsequent Sundays.”
Several mass protests have been held in Washington, D.C. this summer, including the “Get Your Knee off Our Necks” march on Aug. 28 for which organizers obtained a permit from the National Park Service; tens of thousands reportedly attended the march, where Mayor Bowser instructed that attendees had to wear masks.
The church reportedly applied for a waiver from the public health order in June and again in September, asking to hold outdoor services, but was unsuccessful in these applications.
Last week, more than 30 senators led by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) filed an amicus brief in support of the church, and condemning D.C’s “selective enforcement” of health rules.
“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 senators’ brief stated.
D.C. has had nine COVID deaths in the month of October and regularly has a positive test rate of under 2%.