On Thursday, the Washington, D.C., government agreed to fork over more than $200,000 to settle Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s (CHBC) lawsuit challenging Mayor Muriel Bowser’s COVID-19 ban on in-person services, even services outdoors with proper social distancing.
Bowser’s restrictions prohibited church services with more than 100 people. CHBC, an 853-member church, had asked to worship at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, but Bowser had refused. The church sued on September 22, 2020, and a district court granted an injunction in October. Bowser has since dropped the COVID-19 restrictions. In the settlement, Bowser’s lawyers pledged never to violate CHBC’s religious freedom through excessive COVID-19 restrictions again and agreed to pay $220,000 in legal fees.
“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 on Thursday. “The church is relieved and grateful that this ordeal is behind them.”
“Government officials need to know that illegal restrictions on First Amendment rights are intolerable and costly,” Sasser added.
“The District has removed its COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings in places of worship so CHBC is entitled to meet to worship indoors or out as currently provided for in the Mayor’s Orders,” the settlement reads. 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 of Columbia. The District further agrees that, should it decide that new restrictions on religious gatherings are necessary during the current, or any future, COVID-19 (or variant thereof) public health emergency, it will not impose restrictions on CHBC that are more restrictive than the restrictions on comparable secular activities, as defined by the Supreme Court.”
While the settlement agreement states that “nothing in this Agreement is an admission of liability, duty, or wrongdoing by any Party or an admission that any policy, practice, or procedure of the District… violated federal or District of Columbia law,” the settlement represents a major vindication for CHBC’s religious freedom.
As PJ Media’s Paula Bolyard reported when CHBC first filed the lawsuit, CHBC Pastor Justin Sok explained the central religious purpose of gathering to worship in person.
“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,” Sok explained. “Since its founding in 1878, CHBC has met in-person every Sunday except for three weeks during the Spanish Flu in 1918. That changed following Mayor Bowser’s first orders considering COVID-19 on March 11, 2020.”
From the beginning, CHBC asked only for the right to meet in-person “with similar restrictions as area businesses and other gatherings have employed to protect public health.”
District Court Judge Trevor McFadden pointed out how galling Bowser’s denials were, considering the way the mayor rushed to celebrate Black Lives Matter protesters.
“Consider the District’s response to mass protests over the past year, which included thousands of citizens marching through the streets of the city, including along streets that the District closed specifically for that purpose,” McFadden noted. “And the Mayor appeared at one of the mass gatherings, ‘welcom[ing]’ hundreds if not thousands of protestors tightly packed into Black Lives Matter Plaza and announcing that it was ‘so wonderful to see everybody peacefully protesting, wearing [their] mask[s].'”
The judge also noted that Bowser “christened ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’ when she directed the D.C. Department of Public Works to create a mural on 16th Street N.W., near the White House, to ‘honor the peaceful protesters from June 1, 2020 and send a message that District streets are a safe space for peaceful protestors.’”
Indeed, Bowser directed staff to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the road across from the White House in an act of state-sanctioned graffiti.
“The Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services),” McFadden argued.
While D.C. did not admit that it violated CHBC’s religious freedom, the government did agree to pay the church’s legal fees and to refrain from imposing harsh COVID-19 restrictions in the future. This settlement rightly puts the matter to rest.
Like my colleague Paula, I have attended CHBC in the past. In the summer I spent at CHBC, I found a strong sense of community and an intellectual passion in the congregation, in addition to a devotion to the Word of God. I feel some personal satisfaction in the church’s vindication on this issue.