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Capitol Hill Baptist Church Reaches Settlement with DC After Bowser Blocked Churches from Worshipping

07-09-2021
capitolhillbaptist
The Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. (Images credit: Dhousch and Farragutful via Wikimedia Commons)

Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) has reached a favorable settlement with the District of Columbia and Mayor Muriel Bowser after the church filed a federal lawsuit challenging the District's restrictions on gatherings at places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The church was represented in its legal battle with the District by First Liberty Institute, a religious rights law firm. 

Last September, CBN News reported the 142-year-old church had filed a lawsuit against the District and Bowser for ongoing worship restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement at the time, Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) explained that the congregation had not been able to meet in person or outdoors as a group while inside the District limits.

"Since its founding in 1878, CHBC has met in-person every Sunday except for three weeks during the Spanish Flu in 1918," the statement read. "That changed following Mayor Bowser's first orders concerning COVID-19 on March 11, 2020."

CHBC noted that Mayor Bowser has permitted mass gatherings and protests over racial equality where hundreds of people assembled, yet her orders prohibit gatherings of more than 100 people for the purpose of worship. 

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Then in October, the U.S. Justice Department supported the CHBC in their lawsuit. The department filed a statement of interest in federal district court in Washington, D.C., arguing the Constitution and federal law require the District of Columbia to accommodate Capitol Hill Baptist Church's effort to hold worship services outdoors, at least to the same extent the District of Columbia allows other forms of outdoor First Amendment activity, such as peaceful protests.

"The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution," explained Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband. "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."

Later in October, a federal judge ruled the CHBC could hold outdoor services despite the COVID restrictions placed by the mayor. 

The U.S. Court for the District of Columbia granted CHBC a preliminary injunction, ordering the D.C. government to stop prohibiting such a gathering. 

Judge Trevor McFadden insisted, "It is for the church, not the District or this court, to define for itself the meaning of 'not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together."

"All Capitol Hill Baptist Church ever asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church," said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute.  "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."

In the settlement, the District agrees that it will not enforce any "current or future" restrictions on CHBC gatherings. The District also agreed to pay CHBC's legal fees.

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