The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, challenges the city’s limits on worship generally, but asks specifically only for the right to meet outdoors. It notes that Bowser appeared at a huge anti-racism rally in June, that the city police have been assigned to such events and that her office has not enforced its own ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people.
“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 said. “The First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship. But Mayor Bowser, by her own admission, has preferred the former over the latter.”
The suit comes at a complicated time for Capitol Hill Baptist, which offers online bible study, lectures and a journal, among other things but no virtual worship, says in its suit that worshiping together in person is required for a “biblically ordered church.” The 142-year-old, largely White, conservative congregation has spent much of the year in intense internal conversation about racism, politics, the overwhelming White evangelical support for President Trump, and what it all means for the Christian witness. There have been church book groups discussing White privilege, and clergy members this week are launching a teaching series on how to remain close amid disagreements on race and politics.
The vote Sunday at a members meeting to pursue litigation was 402 in favor, 35 against, members said, though church leaders would not confirm specific numbers. Some pastors said no members were strongly opposed, but some were “concerned,” said Justin Sok, a lay pastor.
“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 church’s witness,” Sok said. “They didn’t like the idea of the church pursuing a lawsuit.”
The 26-page complaint focuses on legally contrasting the city’s Phase 2 guidelines for houses of worship, which allows services and activities for up to 100 people or up to 50 percent of the building’s capacity, whichever is fewer, with what it sees as permissiveness for the large public rallies that took place this summer and Bowser’s comments in support of large Black Lives Matter-related events.
Members of Capitol Hill Baptist took part in the first major faith-based anti-racism march this summer in D.C., in June — one organized by conservative evangelicals, a segment of the U.S. church that in the past couple of years has begun publicly wrestling with questions about systemic racism.
“Not that we take issues with other gatherings that have occurred,” Sok said. “We fully support the rights of other citizens to express their views that are important in our day and time in our country but want to express our views and communicate to our people what we think is an important message, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In a statement, the Rev. Thomas Bowen, director of the mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, said: “The pandemic has placed us all in a tough situation, leading us to make adjustments to all aspects of our lives. We have engaged with congregations to ensure houses of worship can plan their services in a way that it is safe for everyone.”
On Monday, Bowser said she was considering lifting bans on some activities during Phase 2. In the next two weeks, she said, she might reopen city-owned indoor pools, allow more activities in libraries and grant waivers for more activities at some businesses, such as live music. The city has been in Phase 2 for three months. D.C. has met some of its 10 criteria for moving into the next phase, including a coronavirus test positivity rate below 3 percent and the ability to contact almost every new patient within a day of testing positive, but has a ways to go in other areas.
Coronavirus restrictions are more liberal in Virginia and Maryland, though in Maryland, the governor allows localities to be more restrictive.
On Tuesday, Montgomery County loosened pandemic-related restrictions on religious institutions at the request of faith leaders. Until this week, houses of worship in the county had to limit attendance to one participant or household group for every 200 square feet of religious ceremony space. Lawmakers on Tuesday approved a proposal to determine the gathering size limit “by dividing the total square footage of the worship space by 50,” with a maximum of 40 percent occupancy.
Capitol Hill Baptist has been meeting for several months in a field outside a Virginia church. The motion said the church wants to negotiate with large outdoor venues to hold services but can’t if the city won’t give it a waiver.
There have been a handful of cases around the country involving challenges by houses of worship to coronavirus restrictions.
The one in Virginia comes from the Lighthouse Fellowship congregation, a small church that filed in April after the pastor was issued a citation for holding a service with 16 people on Palm Sunday, according to the lawsuit. A federal judge denied the church’s initial challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam’s coronavirus order, and the decision is on appeal to the 4th Circuit. The U.S. Justice Department wrote a “statement of interest” in favor of the church, located on Chincoteague Island, saying Lighthouse’s First Amendment rights have been abrogated.
In Maryland, a federal lawsuit is pending involving multiple parties including nine churches, said Tim Walters, head of the group Reopen Maryland. The federal district court denied the group’s initial request, and now a U.S. District Court judge is considering the state’s motion to dismiss it.
“The First Amendment doesn’t give us a right to meet, it constrains Congress and the governor from getting into it,” Walters said. “Scripture calls us to be in fellowship, and watching it on YouTube isn’t fellowship.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Capitol Hill Baptist was 132 years old. It is 142. This version has been updated.