Court Says DC Mayor “Misses the Point” of Religious Freedom

Oct 14, 2020

A federal judge ruled in favor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church against the Washington, D.C. mayor’s discriminatory restrictions on outdoor worship services. Judge Trevor McFadden, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, granted a preliminary injunction allowing the church to hold outdoor services with more congregants than the district allows. 

The church waited more than six months after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s first order restricting outdoor gatherings before it filed a lawsuit on Sept. 22 over the city’s refusal to allow more than 100 people to attend outdoor services while wearing masks and remaining socially distanced. Under D.C.’s Phase Two reopening guidelines, places of worship cannot hold outdoor or indoor services with attendance at more than 50 percent capacity, or 100 people. Capitol Hill Baptist Church argued that the D.C. COVID-19 restrictions had violated its constitutional rights and was causing “irreparable harm” to its congregation. The church twice sought a waiver from the city government so it could meet outdoors. After the District denied the waiver on Sept. 15, the church sued and sought a temporary restraining order. 

The church has been meeting since June in an outdoor space in Alexandria, Virginia. However, most of its members live in the district, and many do not have vehicles to get them to worship in the current location.  Judge McFadden said, “the District misses the point,” when it proposed the church should consider other “methods” of worship, such as a drive-in service, multiple services or services online. The court also rejected the district’s argument that the church cannot show irreparable harm because of its delay in seeking injunctive relief. 

“It ignores the Church’s sincerely held (and undisputed) belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation,” Judge McFadden said. “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.’ Hebrews 10:25.”

Judge McFadden, nominated to the D.C. District Court in 2017 by President Trump, ruled that the mayor’s restrictions limiting religious gatherings violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law established to protect religious liberty. The court also noted that in June Mayor Bowser spoke at a protest at Black Lives Matter Plaza, a recently renamed two-block stretch of 16th Street Northwest that is on the District’s land. 

The judge wrote, “The Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services). Her actions speak volumes…Given the District’s restrictions, the Church now must choose between violating the law or violating its religious convictions.” 

The court likewise rejected the District’s argument that the church cannot show irreparable harm because of its delay in seeking injunctive relief. The judge also cited Liberty Counsel’s case, Maryville Baptist Church v. Andy Beshear, in stating that “the Court rejects any suggestion that religious gatherings in themselves are somehow especially conducive to COVID-19. (‘Risks of contagion turn on social interaction in close quarters; the virus does not care why they are there.’)." 

“The church has consistently represented that it will take appropriate precautions such as holding services outdoors, providing for social distancing, and requiring masks,” said McFadden. “The District has not put forward sufficient evidence showing that prohibiting a gathering with these precautions is necessary to protect the public.” 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “It is encouraging to see Judge Trevor McFadden write that the First Amendment does not disappear during a crisis. Mayor Muriel Bowser has clearly discriminated against every church in the District while participating in a mass gathering of protestors with no limitations. This unequal treatment of churches is unconstitutional.” 

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