The lawsuit, filed Sept. 22, argues that religious organizations are being treated unfairly while political protests — such as those in support of racial justice and against police misconduct — and other activity protected by the First Amendment are not being held to the same limitation.
“To be put simply, Defendants’ current approach to COVID-19 limitations has the effect of treating some forms of protected First Amendment activity differently than other forms of comparable activity and in so doing singles out religious exercise for different treatment,” DOJ says in its 24-page brief.”
Capitol Hill Baptist counts more than 850-members in its congregation, including a number of influential evangelicals in Washington’s legal and political circles.
“A church is not a building that can be opened and closed,” Capitol Hill Baptist said in a statement posted the day the lawsuit was filed. “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.”
The church’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, specifically cites Mayor Muriel Bowser’s appearance at a large social justice protest in June and other instances in which it alleges the city has acted hypocritically and failed to enforce its own restrictions on mass gatherings.
Under Washington D.C.’s phase 2 guidelines, places of worship are ordered to cap religious services and other activities at 100 people or 50 percent of total capacity, whichever is less. Capitol Hill Baptist had applied for an exemption from those limitations but was denied.
Similar challenges have also been filed in neighboring Virginia and Maryland. Courts have yet to rule in those cases.
Early on in the pandemic, Attorney General Bill Barr declared that the Trump administration would not allow places of worship to be “singled out” by coronavirus restrictions and has laid down markers in multiple cases on the issues.
Numerous outbreaks across the country have been linked to religious activity, particularly in settings where participants were not practicing social distancing recommendations or carrying out activities like choir singing that risk spreading the respiratory virus.