A federal judge quoted Hebrews 10:25 as he ruled against Mayor Muriel Bowser’s restriction on outdoor church services of more than 100 people, allowing Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., to resume in-person outdoor services.
“It is for the church, not the District or this court, to define for itself the meaning of ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,’” Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee, wrote, quoting the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews, according to The Washington Times.
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching,” reads the verse.
In late September, the church had filed a complaint in federal court, arguing that the city had 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 church, led by 9Marks co-founder, Pastor Mark Dever, stated in its complaint. “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,” added the church, represented by attorneys at the First Liberty Institute and WilmerHale, LLP.
Issuing a memorandum opinion in the case, the judge wrote: “The Court determines that the Church is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions violate RFRA. The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion. More, 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. The Court will therefore grant the Church’s motion for injunctive relief.”
The judge also wrote: “The Church has consistently represented that it will take appropriate precautions such as holding services outdoors, providing for social distancing, and requiring masks. As explained, the District has not put forward sufficient evidence showing that prohibiting a gathering with these precautions is necessary to protect the public.”
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Sharing an update on the case, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention quoted its President, Russell Moore, as responding to a Supreme Court decision on California’s ongoing COVID-19 pandemic orders: “This pandemic is a perilous time. We need to emerge from it with both our public safety and our First Amendment intact. We can do that, but only if elected officials and the courts take seriously the matters both of public health and of constitutional freedoms.”
The Department of Justice backed CHBC in the case.
The DOJ argued that “the Constitution and federal law require the District of Columbia to accommodate Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s effort to hold worship services outdoors, at least to the same extent the District of Columbia allows other forms of outdoor First Amendment activity, such as peaceful protests.”
“The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a DOJ statement earlier. “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.”
According to the church’s lawsuit, the city was 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.”
In a recent court brief, the church filed a photo showing Bowser standing without a mask amid a tightly packed crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in June.
Justin Sok, a pastor at CHBC, stressed earlier: “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.”