The 850-member Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., is suing Mayor Murriel Bowser over her ban on outdoor church services of more than 100 people during the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the gathering restriction has been applied unfairly.
Represented by attorneys at the First Liberty Institute and WilmerHale, LLP, the church led by 9Marks co-founder Mark Dever filed a complaint in federal court on Tuesday arguing that the city has violated the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“For CHBC, a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute,” the legal document reads. “The Church does not offer virtual worship services, it does not utilize a multi-site model, and it does not offer multiple Sunday morning worship services.”
In March, Bowser issued an executive order that, among other things, barred CHBC and other churches from gathering for indoor and outdoor in-person worship. According to the lawsuit, the city is prohibiting worship gatherings of over 100 people or 50% of building capacity (whichever is fewer) “even if held outdoors and even if worshippers wear masks and practice appropriate social distancing.”
Under the district’s four-phase re-opening plan, the church’s in-person worship gatherings will be prohibited until “a widely-available vaccine or an effective therapy for COVID-19” is available, the lawsuit explains. The city has been in phase 2 for over three months.
Justin Sok, a pastor at CHBC, said in a four-paragraph statement that CHBC had met in-person every Sunday since its founding in 1878, except for three weeks during the Spanish Flu in 1918.
“That changed following Mayor Bowser’s first orders concerning COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. Since that time, the members of CHBC — most of whom live in the District — have been unable to meet in person, as one congregation inside District limits (even outdoors),” Sok detailed. “Our simple desire is to have a community and one that meets together safely.”
The church has applied for multiple waivers to the mayor’s policy. However, city officials “refuse to provide CHBC with a waiver beyond 100 persons as part of a mass gathering,” Sok added.
“The lawsuit filed Tuesday simply asks that CHBC be permitted to meet in-person, with similar restrictions as area businesses and other gatherings have employed to protect public health,” the pastor stressed. “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.”
The lawsuit mentions that Bowser coordinated with organizers of the Commitment March on Washington to “re-imagine” the racial justice demonstration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“Defendants have been discriminatory in their application of the ban on large scale gatherings,” the lawsuit, which lists the city as a co-defendant, states. “For example, on June 6, 2020, Mayor Bowser appeared personally at an outdoor gathering of tens of thousands of people at the corner of 16th and H Streets, NW and delivered a speech describing the large gathering as ‘wonderful to see.’”
According to the court filing, the church made repeated efforts to contact Bowser’s office, including direct efforts and indirectly through a city councilman. After initially filing for a waiver in June, the church resubmitted its waiver request on Sept. 1.
The district “refused to rule on the Church’s application for months before rejecting the application last week,” the filing explains.
The rejection of the waiver leaves CHBC subject to the civil and administrative penalties should it violate the order.
A representative of the church told The Christian Post that Dever is not available for interviews about the lawsuit.
9Marks, a ministry organization that provides resources for churches, previously posted an article in March about how churches in Washington, D.C., had complied with demands from authorities to close services for about a month during the 1918 Spanish Flu out of “neighborly love” to protect public health.
In a video posted on the church’s YouTube page in May, Dever said Christians have always gathered together to be with the fellow believers and do things that “Jesus has called us to do.”
“In Hebrews 10, we are told that we shouldn’t forsake the regular assembly of ourselves together,” Dever stressed. “That is why Christians, ever since the very first Christians, have begun the week by gathering, by coming together, like we do normally here in this space.”
The pastor said that Christianity has “always been a religion that gathers.”
“Some people would think of Christianity as basically an experience that a monk would have, where you are simply off by yourself having your own private devotions,” Dever stated. “Friends that is not really what we see in the Bible as normal for Christians.”
“What we are called to do as Christians is get together,” he added. “That is why we have [churches] like this all over the world. We always have. If you go back to the very first Christians, literally on the first day there were people called Christians, they were gathering.”
According to The Washington Post, Capitol Hill Baptist has met for several months in a field near a Virginia church.
Thomas Bowen, the director of the mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, told the newspaper that the city has “engaged with congregations to ensure houses of worship can plan their services in a way that it is safe for everyone.”
“The pandemic has placed us all in a tough situation, leading us to make adjustments to all aspects of our lives,” Bowen said.