Federal court rules DC church can resume services outdoors despite city restrictions

Bonnie Cash

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday ruled that a local church in Washington, D.C., can resume its outdoor services despite coronavirus restrictions. 

The Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) sued the city and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), claiming that it was denied a permit for an outdoor service, which would feature 850 people and follow social distancing guidelines. Under current restrictions, churches in the district are at 50 percent capacity and a 100-person limit. However, multiple mass protests and rallies have occurred in D.C. in recent months, leading the church to argue that it was being unfairly discriminated against.

In his ruling, Judge Trevor McFadden said the city’s support for the protests, no matter how they were organized, “undermines its contention that it has a compelling interest in capping the number of attendees at the Church’s outdoor services.” 

“The Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services),” McFadden continued. 

McFadden issued a preliminary finding that the District had not shown that it had a “compelling interest” in prohibiting the church from hosting its services. 

Justin Sok, a pastor at CHBC, said in a statement that “our government is restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic.”

“We trust that this will be a blessing not only to our congregation but to the rest of our neighbors in D.C.,” he added.

The Justice Department backed the church’s suit against the city, arguing that D.C. applied a double standard by denying the permit but allowing larger outdoor rallies and protests. 

“The Constitution and federal law require DC to accommodate Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s effort to hold worship services outdoors to same extent DC allows other forms of outdoor First Amendment activity, such as peaceful protests,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement Monday.

More than 30 GOP senators also threw their support behind the suit, arguing that the city’s “selective enforcement” of its coronavirus restrictions infringed on the church’s religious freedom.

The Hill has reached out to Bowser’s office for comment.

Tags Coronavirus Lawsuits Muriel Bowser Protests religious freedom Washington D.C.

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