Justice Department backs D.C. church case in which city limits attendance at services

The suit argues that the D.C. government limiting the size of church gatherings is a First Amendment violation.

Published: October 5, 2020 8:03am

Updated: October 6, 2020 12:05pm

A church that filed a lawsuit against Washington, D.C.'s coronavirus restrictions that cap at 100 the number of people who can gather at a church – indoors or outdoors – has gained the support of the Justice Department.

The suit, Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, argues that Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city government limiting the size of church gatherings is a violation of the First Amendment. The department has filed a statement of interest in the case, in support of the church's argument.

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

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said in a statement about the case: "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 supporting all Americans' rights to worship as they choose."

The government is arguing that there is no valid basis to allow protests and rallies attended by thousands of people, while simultaneously shutting down religious services. According to the DOJ's brief, the government's current actions impose a "substantial burden" on religious exercise and practice, that must be met with a high burden of proof in order to be lawful. 

The suit also argues that Bowser attended a large-scale protest on June 6, showing the city government didn't enforce its own mandates on large gatherings. 

The Capitol Hill Baptist Church has more than 850 congregant members. The institution is being represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based firm specializing in First Amendment religious freedom cases.

Washington, D.C. remains in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, which caps religious services at 100 people or 50% of total capacity. Capitol Hill Baptist Church initially asked to be exempted from the limitation, but the request was denied. 

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