Justice Department Sides With DC Church in Opposing COVID Restrictions

Justice Department Sides With DC Church in Opposing COVID Restrictions
Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. on July 25, 2015. (DHousch/CCO 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Matthew Vadum

The Trump administration is supporting a church’s federal lawsuit challenging the District of Columbia’s pandemic-related restrictions that limit church gatherings–even those outdoors—to 100 people.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a document called a statement of interest in the legal proceeding initiated by Capitol Hill Baptist Church, arguing the District government limit on the size of church gatherings runs afoul of the First Amendment to the Constitution and federal law.

The lawsuit, launched Sept. 22 and known as Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, claims that religious organizations such as the church are being clamped down on unfairly while political protests such as those held by Black Lives Matter and other First Amendment-protected activities are allowed to operate freely.

“Since its founding in 1878, CHBC has met in-person every Sunday except for three weeks during the Spanish Flu in 1918,” Pastor Justin Sok said in a statement at the time.

“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 said.

“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.”

Capitol Hill Baptist Church has more than 850 members.

“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 statement. “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.”

The government’s brief argues there is no valid constitutional or statutory basis for allowing protests and rallies attended by thousands of people, while at the same time silencing religious worship. The District must meet a high burden of proof to justify its actions under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) because its actions impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, according to the document.

“To be put simply, Defendants’ current approach to COVID-19 limitations has the effect of treating some forms of protected First Amendment activity differently than other forms of comparable activity and in so doing singles out religious exercise for different treatment,” the 24-page brief states.

The statement of interest is part of Attorney General William Barr’s initiative, announced April 27, directing Dreiband and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, to review governmental policies around the country to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit accuses Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, of hypocrisy, pointing out that she attended a large social justice protest on June 6 and that there have been several instances in which the District government has declined to enforce its own restrictions on large gatherings of people.

When asked to comment on the claim that she “celebrates massive street protests” while “churches and houses of worship remain shut,” Bowser responded that “First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same,” adding that “in the United States of America, people can protest,” according to the statement of interest.

Under the District’s phase 2 reopening guidelines, places of worship are required to limit religious services and other activities at 100 people or 50 percent of total capacity, whichever is less. Capitol Hill Baptist Church asked to be exempted from that cap but the request was denied.

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, a Democrat, couldn’t immediately be reached by The Epoch Times for comment.

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

With reporting by Mark Tapscott.
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