A federal court will allow one of the District’s largest churches to hold outdoor services as a lawsuit moves forward.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church sued D.C. in September over Phase 2 pandemic restrictions that cap gatherings at 100 people. The church argued that the District was violating its First and Fifth Amendment rights by refusing to allow the church’s entire congregation, which numbers roughly 850 people, to gather for worship.
The U.S. District Court gave a preliminary injunction late Friday that allows congregation members to gather outdoors while the lawsuit moves forward. Attendees must wear facial coverings and maintain six feet of distance from each other.
Judge Trevor McFadden, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, wrote that the District’s 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.”
Pastor Justin Sok welcomed the development.
“With this ruling, our government is restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic,” Sok said in a statement. “We trust that this will be a blessing not only to our congregation but to the rest of our neighbors in D.C.”
The church does not hold online services, saying virtual gatherings don’t replicate or replace in-person meeting as a congregation.
“A church is not a building that can be opened or closed,” Sok said. “A church is not an event to be watched. A church is a community that gathers regularly and we are thankful that such communities are once again being treated fairly by our government.”
The church met Sunday at a church parking lot in the Del Ray area of Alexandria, Virginia. It’s been meeting in Virginia over the past few months. Now the church says it will look at a “variety of outdoor venues to move our weekly gathering from Virginia to D.C.”
“We continue to appreciate our mayor and her dedicated efforts to protect the public health of our city while balancing the importance of various First Amendment rights,” Sok said.
Several conservative Congress members and the Department of Justice have gotten involved in the suit. The DOJ filed a statement of interest in the case, saying that both the Constitution and federal law mandate that the city permits the church’s request to worship outdoors.
The church’s lawsuit argued that the District was favoring “certain expressive gatherings over others,” referring to recent citywide protests. While the church says in the suit that it supports the right to protest, it says D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not acted fairly in allowing large gatherings for protests but not for religious worship.
The church had sought waivers to worship at RFK stadium’s parking lots but were denied twice, according to the lawsuit.