Capitol Hill Baptist Church sought a preliminary injunction against the District of Columbia’s enforcement of an ordinance that limited outdoor church gatherings to 100 people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 850-member church has continued to meet under these restrictions.
The church sued D.C. and Mayor Muriel Bowser over these restrictions. In its complaint, the church noted that the city allows, even welcomes, anti-police protests of unlimited numbers of people. The church contended that city and Mayor Bowser supported the large outdoor protests, as she attended one of them.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which issued a statement of interest in the case, stated that the U.S. Constitution and federal law requires D.C. to accommodate the church’s effort to meet outdoors.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agrees.
The court granted Capitol Hill Baptist Church a preliminary injunction against the city’s ordinance. From the court’s opinion (PDF):
The Court determines that the Church is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions violate [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] RFRA. The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion. More, the District has failed to offer evidence at this stage showing that it has a compelling interest in preventing the Church from meeting outdoors with appropriate precautions, or that this prohibition is the least-restrictive means to achieve its interest. The Court will therefore grant the Church’s motion for injunctive relief.
Justin Sok, a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, said (DOC) in a statement that the church will continue to appreciate the mayor and her “dedicated efforts to protect the public health of our city while balancing the importance of various First Amendment rights. With this ruling, our government is restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic. We trust that this will be a blessing not only to our congregation but to the rest of our neighbors in DC.”