Capitol Hill Baptist Church Sues DC Mayor, Government for Barring Worship Services

September 24, 2020 Updated: September 27, 2020

The church members of a historic congregation a few blocks from Congress believe they have a religious duty to meet and worship in person, although a District of Columbia government edict has barred them from doing so.

Leaders of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) have appealed to D.C. officials since Mayor Muriel Bowser’s anti-CCP virus edict was issued March 11, but nothing has changed.

All indoor and outdoor church meetings of 100 or more are barred, even if participants wear masks and social distance, as they’re required to do when visiting local businesses.

So Senior Pastor Mark Dever and CHBC’s elders reluctantly filed suit against the edict in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Sept. 22.

He’s a nationally known evangelical leader and the founder of the 9Marks organization, which provides ministry and administrative resources for churches across the nation, and has been at CHBC since 1994.

Dever couldn’t be reached for comment by The Epoch Times.

The church is represented by First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based law firm that specializes in First Amendment religious freedom litigation.

“Meeting in-person as one congregation is a deeply-held religious conviction for which there is no substitute. Our simple desire is to have a community and one that meets together safely,” CHBC said in a statement explaining its decision to go to court.

“CHBC has applied for multiple waivers to the policy, but District officials refuse to provide CHBC with a waiver beyond 100 persons as part of a mass gathering.

“The lawsuit filed on 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.”

In its suit, CHBC noted that its congregation believes it’s required by scripture to “not neglect meeting together,” which is why the church hasn’t turned to using digital meetings during the pandemic.

“For CHBC, a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute,” the church said. “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 of this year, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an executive order that, among other things, prohibited CHBC from gathering as one for in-person worship, whether indoors or outdoors.

“Now, six months later, that ban on CHBC’s corporate worship gatherings remains in effect in the District of Columbia. The Mayor’s orders prohibit gatherings of over 100 people for purposes of worship, even if held outdoors and even if worshippers wear masks and practice appropriate social distancing.

“Under the District’s four-stage plan, CHBC’s in-person worship gatherings will be prohibited until scientists develop either a widely-available vaccine or an effective therapy for COVID-19.”

The filing also points to Bowser’s appearance in June at a large outdoor gathering protesting the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident, while in the custody of local police.

“Defendants have been discriminatory in their application of the ban on large scale gatherings. 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,’” the suit states.

A spokesman for Bowser couldn’t be reached by The Epoch Times for comment.

The congregation first met in 1878 and has met every Sunday since then, except for three weeks during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed millions of Americans.

With its suit, CHBC becomes the latest in a growing list of congregations across the country that have run afoul of pandemic-related regulations issued by state and local officials.

In Los Angeles, for example, Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church has gone to court four times in recent months against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s extremely detailed regulations that effectively bar in-person church services, but allow other businesses to remain open.

The CHBC suit could have lasting national impact, however, because the D.C. government is created by Congress, which is explicitly barred by the First Amendment from prescribing what are acceptable and unacceptable religious practices.

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc