Last week, the court reached a favorable settlement for Capitol Hill Baptist Church with the District of Columbia in the case Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Muriel E. Bowser.
“We are grateful for the work of NRB Member First Liberty in helping the faithful, gospel-preaching congregation at Capitol Hill Baptist Church defend their right to worship,” Daniel Darling, Senior Vice President of Communications at NRB, said. “While we acknowledge that public officials have a duty to protect their citizens during a global pandemic, they must never trample on the First Amendment rights of churches while doing so.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, elected officials were forced to make unprecedented decisions regarding restrictions on large gatherings. This included places of worship. In the District of Columbia, Mayor Bowser placed restrictions on gatherings of over 100 people during the global pandemic.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) has over 800 members in its congregation, therefore, an in-person service would have violated the mayor’s order. The controversy lies in the belief that it is an essential practice for Christians to gather in church. With that belief, CHBC sought to hold in-person services in an outdoor setting with precautions such as social distancing and wearing masks. Their hope was to both respect the law and stay true to their religious convictions. The district denied their request.
The mayor of D.C. denied CHBC’s wish to hold church services that followed CDC guidelines while at the same time encouraging mass protests within the city. CHBC had no stance against the protests but simply did not understand how the First Amendment right to assemble was protected during the pandemic but not the right to practice freedom of religion.
“All Capitol Hill Baptist Church ever asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church,” Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel for First Liberty Institute stated.
First Liberty, a public interest organization in support of religious freedom and law firm, WilmerHale, filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of CHBC.
Last Thursday, a settlement was reached between the two parties—CHBC and D.C. The terms of the agreement were that all COVID-19 restrictions would be lifted, and no future restrictions related to COVID-19 will be imposed on CHBC. Additionally, the district agreed to pay $222,000 in legal fees to CHBC, which go to First Liberty and WilmerHale.
Why is this important?
CHBC was a prominent example of a church that was forced to comply with restrictions that were not applied to other secular gatherings, such as protests. This settlement is a victory for rights such as freedom of religion and assembly under the United States Constitution.
NRB will continue to stand for religious liberty in the public square.