D.C. Church Sues City Over COVID-19 Mass Gathering Restrictions The complaint is the first legal challenge from a religious organization to D.C.'s coronavirus restrictions, but churches have filed similar suits in Maryland and Virginia.
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D.C. Church Sues City Over COVID-19 Mass Gathering Restrictions

Capitol Hill Baptist Church has sued the District over COVID-19 restrictions. Dhousch/Flickr hide caption

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A prominent Evangelical church in D.C. is suing the city over the District's continuing restrictions on mass gatherings. The suit alleges the city government is infringing on the church's First Amendment rights by limiting worship services due to the pandemic while allowing large anti-racism protests.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church filed the suit in U.S. District Court Tuesday, seeking the right to "gather for corporate worship free from threat of governmental sanction" and saying it wants Mayor Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia to stop violating its First and Fifth Amendment rights. The First Amendment protects religious gatherings and free speech while the Fifth Amendment prohibits "governmental deprivation of 'life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.'"

The church argues the administration is favoring "certain expressive gatherings over others" and creating a "de facto exemption" for protests like Black Lives Matter.

The lawsuit demands the District allow the church to physically gather as a congregation if services are conducted with appropriate social distancing practices.

The church says it has offered services nearly every week since it was established in 1878. It did stop services during the 1918 flu outbreak, according to Capitol Hill Baptist Church pastor Mark Dever.

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Nearly 1,000 people usually attended services pre-pandemic.

"A weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute," the lawsuit says. "The Church does not offer virtual worship services."

"CHBC believes that a central part of following Christ is worshipping together in the same physical space."

Pastor Dever says he will not hold online services because "a video of a sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together and all the various means of God's grace in that."

Bowser's order in March prohibited large gatherings. Her latest executive order issued for Phase Two on June 22 says "places of worship can operate services and activities with up to 100 people or up to 50% of their capacity, whichever is fewer, with strong safeguards and physical distancing."

Groups of persons attending together must not exceed 10 people and each group must be seated at least six feet from each other group. The rules apply for indoors and outdoors.

The church applied for a waiver for large-group gatherings outdoors but says it was denied.

It says that "CHBC had been told that it could use an outdoor space near RFK Stadium that 'would very comfortably accommodate' its congregation, but only if CHBC had a waiver from the District of Columbia government."

The church says the District denied its request, despite allowing another gathering in that same spot: a pop-up movie theater with 350 socially-distance car capacity.

The church says it won't be able to return to full in-person gatherings until a vaccine is widely available, according to D.C.'s four-stage reopening plan.

Meanwhile, they criticized Bowser for allowing large outdoor protests and even delivering a speech saying it was "wonderful to see" the protest "with tens of thousands of people."

A church on the Eastern Shore of Virginia has also sued the state of Virginia for limiting gatherings. In Maryland, nine churches have joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn the state's pandemic restrictions.

Churches outside the D.C. region started opening around mid-May with safety precautions in place, like spread-out seating and mask requirements.

Many cases have been connected to church services, the New York Times reported in July.

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