Capitol Hill Baptist Church last month sued the District of Columbia and Mayor Muriel Bowser over the city’s restrictions on churches meeting inside or outside buildings. The ordinance bans indoor services and limits outdoor services to no more than 100 people. The church has a membership of 850 people. The church noted how the government allows no-limit, outdoor anti-police protests and asks to be allowed to meet outdoors with no limits.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued a statement of interest in the case. The DOJ contends that the U.S. Constitution and federal law requires D.C. to accommodate the church’s effort to meet outdoors.
“The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “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.”
The United States’ brief explains there is no constitutional or statutory basis for allowing protests and rallies attended by thousands of people, while at the same time silencing religious worship. The brief also explains the city bears a high burden of proof to justify its actions under the First Amendment and RFRA because its actions impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, as the church has shown here.
The DOJ has issued statements of interest in related cases. For example, a church in Mississippi challenged the government’s ban on churches holding drive-in services. The mayor eventually rescinded the ban and the fines. The DOJ also supported a church in Virginia that held a service for 16 people sitting six feet apart in a sanctuary with 225 seats, but the government still issued the church a criminal citation.
Some pastors continue to defy government bans on worship services indoors and outdoors. For example, prominent pastor John MacArthur continues to hold worship services inside his Grace Community Church in southern California, despite threats to put him in jail.