Federal Judge Skeptical of DC’s Religious Restrictions for Covid

Capitol Hill Baptist Church, located six blocks from the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (By Dhousch, CC0, Link)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Capitol Hill Baptist Church, an 850-member evangelical congregation, accused the District of Columbia of disparate First Amendment treatment of worship services and anti-racism protests, challenging the city’s ban on indoor and outdoor religious gatherings of more than 100 people due to Covid-19. 

The complaint filed last month was the first legal battle brought by a religious organization in the nation’s capital over pandemic restrictions. The church challenged the worship gathering limitations generally, while also seeking an emergency order allowing its full congregation to meet outdoors. 

Final rulings in similar lawsuits in neighboring Virginia and Maryland are pending. A federal judge struck down a New York limitation on religious gatherings in June, writing the city’s leaders rather than discourage protests “sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment.”

The Trump administration stepped in last week as an interested party in the case, writing that “local government has significant discretion to decide what measures to adopt to meet a public health threat,” but must treat religious gatherings the same as comparable secular events. 

But an attorney for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser argued Wednesday that the city, relying on science and data, has adopted “narrowly tailored” policies that actually allow for more relaxed restrictions for worship services. 

While secular events are still limited to 50 people or less, members of a religious body can gather indoors and outdoors up to 100 people under Bowser’s order. 

Attorney Matthew Martens, representing the church, said the congregation was hesitant to bring the lawsuit, being “deeply committed Christians” whose desire is to live “quiet and peaceable lives.” 

But the members have grown exacerbated by the city’s “seemingly more random and more draconian” Covid-19 measures, the attorney added. 

Martens argued the city recently allowed an event to be held at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with over 360 people on the roof.

Bowser’s attorney Conrad Risher on rebuttal said the event actually was never held because of a misunderstanding among organizers. 

But U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden pressed the city on the limits of its ban on First Amendment protected gatherings. 

The Trump appointee said it appeared as though Bowser planned to maintain the limitations on worship gatherings until a Covid-19 vaccine was widely available, noting that the church may still be restricted as to how it can worship into summer 2021. 

He also questioned how large-scale protests carry fewer risks than a church service. The city, notably, argued it had no control over demonstrations held on federal land, such as the National Mall and Lafayette Park. 

Referring to a video of Bowser at an anti-racism protest in June cited by the plaintiffs, the judge said: “You certainly cannot tell me that the protesters were socially distanced. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people all crammed together.”

When Risher said that “the singing is a particular concern” at workshop gatherings, as well as members who are eager to see one another not adhering to social distancing, the judge said people are yelling and chanting at protests, asking where the difference lies. 

The city attorney repeatedly said Bowser and her advisers are relying on “science and data,” but Martens, representing the church, demanded the judge hold an evidentiary hearing, claiming the government had provided no evidence. 

“The district understands that all of us are tired of this,” Risher admitted near the end of the more than two-hour hearing. 

But the city’s attorney argued Capitol Hill Baptist Church had not proved irreparable harm — the threshold to be granted a preliminary injunction — and said the increased number of Covid-19 cases in Virginia and Maryland where worship restrictions are less strict is evidence that the D.C. rules are working. 

“There is no injury more irreparable than death,” Risher said, arguing the looser restrictions the D.C. church is seeking could cost lives.

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