State and local politicians have tried for months to justify closing churches and worship services due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But one U.S. District judge says political officials have been hypocritical by not applying the same restrictions to protests and other public gatherings.
And in a recent ruling in favor of religious liberty against Washington, D.C.’s mayor, three powerful words stood out.
Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser “misses the point” when it comes to religious liberty.
The ruling states that Bowser discriminated against Capitol Hill Baptist Church by restricting the number of worshippers who could attend outdoor services.
McFadden’s ruling granted a preliminary injunction against the city, allowing the church to hold outdoor services with more than 100 attendees.
The church, which has more than 850 members, returned to outdoor services on Oct. 18 in Anacostia Park in Southeast D.C., with worshippers wearing face masks and social-distancing.
“Thankful that the Capitol Hill Baptist Church was able to meet in the District again today,” Pastor Mark Dever tweeted prior to the service.
Phase Two of Washington’s COVID-19 guidelines had restricted churches from holding indoor and outdoor services at more than 50 percent capacity, or 100 people.
The church abided by the city’s initial COVID-19 restrictions, and twice sought a waiver to meet outdoors. But when the District denied the second waiver on Sept. 15, the church filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s Phase Two restrictions.
Capitol Hill Baptist argued that the restrictions violated their constitutional rights and caused “irreparable harm” to their congregation.
The church had been meeting outdoors in Alexandria, Va. since June – outside of DC’s restrictions – but most of its members live in the district and could not travel to Virginia.
McFadden ruled that the District’s order “misses the point” when proposing that churches should consider other forms of worship, such as drive-in or online services.
He also sided with the church’s claim of irreparable harm, citing Hebrews 10:25, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another …”
“It ignores the Church’s sincerely held (and undisputed) belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation,” McFadden said.
“It is for the church, not the District or this court, to define for itself the meaning of ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.’”
McFadden’s ruling says the mayor’s restrictions violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects religious liberty.
He also noted that Bowser spoke at a Black Lives Matter protest in June and attended other outdoor political events – showing clear favoritism in enforcing the city’s regulations.
“The Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services).”
“Her actions speak volumes… Given the District’s restrictions, the Church now must choose between violating the law or violating its religious convictions.”
McFadden also rejected the District’s argument that religious gatherings are “especially conducive to COVID-19.”
“The church has consistently represented that it will take appropriate precautions such as holding services outdoors, providing for social distancing, and requiring masks,” McFadden said.
“The District has not put forward sufficient evidence showing that prohibiting a gathering with these precautions is necessary to protect the public.”
Justin Sok, another pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist, said that the church appreciated the mayor’s efforts to protect public health, but the court was “restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic.”
“A church is not a building that can be opened or closed,” he said.
“A church is not an event to be watched. A church is a community that gathers regularly and we are thankful that such communities are once again being treated fairly by our government.”
McFadden’s ruling and rebuke of Mayor Bowser were applauded by other churches and religious liberty organizations.
“It is encouraging to see Judge Trevor McFadden write that the First Amendment does not disappear during a crisis,” said Liberty Counsel Action’s founder and chairman Mat Staver.
“Mayor Muriel Bowser has clearly discriminated against every church in the District while participating in a mass gathering of protestors with no limitations.”
“This unequal treatment of churches is unconstitutional.”