D.C. pays church $220,000 to settle lawsuit over COVID-19 religious restrictions

Mayor Bowser pledges not to use COVID restrictions to prevent Capitol Hill Baptist from "gathering as one congregation" in D.C.
Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser

The District of Columbia has thrown in the towel in its legal fight with Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which won a preliminary injunction against the city's COVID-19 restrictions last fall.

In a settlement between the parties Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration agreed to pay $220,000 to church lawyers at WilmerHale and the First Liberty Institute.

"The District agrees that it will not enforce any current or future COVID-19 restrictions to prohibit CHBC from gathering as one congregation" in the district, according to the settlement.

Should the district impose new restrictions on religious gatherings in the name of mitigating COVID-19 "or variant thereof," they will not be more restrictive than on "comparable secular activities, as defined by the Supreme Court," the settlement also states.

The conservative congregation of several hundred members objected to the district's 100-person cap on all religious services, indoor or outdoor, as an arbitrary and discriminatory COVID restriction. Its theology emphasizes the importance of the congregation meeting in one assembly, rather than broken up into multiple services.

Rather than wait for litigation to conclude, the church held meeting outdoors on another church's property in Virginia.

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden said last fall that the district "has not shown that it is likely to prove a compelling interest in prohibiting the Church from holding outdoor worship services with appropriate precautions, or that its restrictions are the least restrictive means available to achieve its public health objectives."

The Trump administration supported the church's lawsuit, citing the district's favorable treatment of political rallies that drew much larger crowds than CHBC's single service. The Justice Department noted that Bowser, a Democrat, flouted her own rules by attending a large June 6 protest following the death of George Floyd.

“All Capitol Hill Baptist Church ever asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church,” Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. "Government officials need to know that illegal restrictions on First Amendment rights are intolerable and costly.”