A legal challenge was filed against the Capitol Hill District by a large and prominent evangelical church on Tuesday. Capitol Hill Baptist is alleging the city government is violating the First Amendment by assisting in and tolerating massive anti-racism protests while forbidding worship services of more than 100 people.
This marks the first legal challenge by a religious organization over the capital's coronavirus restrictions. With no online ministry, the suit comes at a difficult time for Capitol Hill Baptist, which says worshiping in person is required for a "biblically ordered church."
"The Church takes no issue with Defendants' decision to permit these gatherings, which are themselves protected by the First Amendment, and the Church supports this exercise of First Amendment rights. The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants' decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others," the suit says. "The First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship. But Mayor Bowser, by her own admission, has preferred the former over the latter."
Although church leaders would not confirm the specific numbers, members said that 402 were in favor of pursuing litigation and 35 were against it.
"There were a lot of questions about what we were pursuing. Questions about what end this would achieve, how it would happen … concerns about the timeline, how this would affect the church's witness," said Justin Sok, a lay pastor. "They didn't like the idea of the church pursuing a lawsuit."
Rev. Thomas Bowen, director of the mayor's Office of Religious Affairs, pushed back on the suit.
"The pandemic has placed us all in a tough situation, leading us to make adjustments to all aspects of our lives," Bowen said in a statement. "We have engaged with congregations to ensure houses of worship can plan their services in a way that it is safe for everyone."
? Multiple churches around the country, including one in Virginia and one in Maryland, have also filed cases challenging coronavirus restrictions.