DC Mayor’s Limit on Religious Services Violates Law, Judge Rules

October 10, 2020 Updated: October 10, 2020

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser was in the wrong when she implemented a cap on the number of people at religious services, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

Leaders of Capitol Hill Baptist Church sued Bowser, a Democrat, last month after she refused to alter further her harsh emergency orders.

“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,” the church said in a statement, noting that the original order forbade any in-person worship, even outdoors, before being loosened.

District Judge Trevor McFadden sided with the church, ruling that Bowser’s restrictions likely violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“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,” McFadden, a Trump-appointee, wrote in the 26-page ruling.

Epoch Times Photo
Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. on July 25, 2015. (DHousch/CCO 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Bowser’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the church.

Church leaders asked the court to block Bowser’s prohibitions. McFadden granted that request, ruling the church is likely to succeed in proving the District of Columbia’s actions violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The 1993 bill is aimed at preventing government overreach.

The bill “prohibits any agency, department, or official of the United States or any state (the government) from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except that the government may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Capitol Hill Baptist Church had received strong backing in recent days, including from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and congressional Republicans.

The DOJ argued that the Constitution and federal law required the district “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.”

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