DOJ supports DC church defying COVID-19 orders to hold worship services outdoors

DOJ supports DC church defying COVID-19 orders to hold worship services outdoors
© Greg Nash

The Justice Department has said it will back a Washington, D.C., church that is suing the city and Mayor Muriel BowserMuriel BowserOvernight Health Care: Biden tells federal workers to get vaccinated or submit to testing | President calls on states to offer 0 vaccine incentives | DC brings back indoor mask mandate starting Saturday House GOP stages mask mandate protest DC Mayor's new mask mandate sparks immediate backlash MORE (D) over gathering restrictions on religious liberty grounds.

In its lawsuit, the Capitol Hill Baptist Church said it was denied a permit for an outdoor service, which would feature more than 850 people and involve social distancing precautions. Under current restrictions, churches in the district are at 50 percent capacity and a 100-person limit.

“The Justice Department is committed to upholding all the civil rights protected under the First Amendment, be it peaceable assembly in protest or practicing faith,” Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia said in a statement.

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In its statement of interest, the Justice Department agrees with the church that the city applied a double standard by denying the permit but allowing larger outdoor rallies and protests.

“The church seeks to hold an expressive event consisting of an outdoor worship service with appropriate distancing and other precautionary measures, indeed one significantly smaller in size than the protests and March on Washington commemoration event in August 2020 that the Defendants allowed, and considerably smaller than the crowds at recent protests,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in its filing.

“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.

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Attorney General William Barr has been a vocal critic of local and state lockdown measures during the coronavirus pandemic. In a May memo, he signaled support for protesters demonstrating against the memos.

More recently, in a September speech at Michigan’s conservative Hillsdale College, he called stay-at-home orders “other than slavery … the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

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