Not forsaking assembly in D.C.
Religious Liberty | Prominent evangelical church challenges worship restrictions
by Steve West
Posted 9/25/20, 03:30 pm
Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a historic evangelical congregation in Washington, D.C., has met for services in a field outside another church in Northern Virginia since mid-June. Its leaders are willing to require masks and social distancing, but the District of Columbia’s coronavirus restrictions are too tight for the nearly 1,000 regular attendees to worship together, even outdoors. After D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser joined protests over racial issues with thousands of people this summer, the church cried foul.
Capitol Hill Baptist filed a complaint in federal court on Tuesday arguing Bowser’s limits on public gatherings effectively and unconstitutionally stop churches from worshiping together. The church believes “a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute.” Similar to lawsuits in California and Nevada, it also accuses Bowser of restricting worship more than protests.
In March, Bowser banned all gatherings of 10 or more people. She later loosened restrictions to allow meetings indoors or outdoors of up to 50 percent of capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. But Capitol Hill Baptist Pastor Mark Dever said livestreaming, multisite, and multiservice options cannot replace the entire congregation physically worshiping together. During the past six months, the church has offered online Bible studies, lectures, and other resources, but no worship services in the city.
“Christianity has always been a religion which gathers,” Dever said in a video message. “That’s what we have done since the very beginning of Christianity.”
In June, Bowser attended a protest with tens of thousands of people in the wake of George Floyd’s death, saying, “It’s so wonderful to see everyone peacefully protesting, wearing their masks.” The church said the city hasn’t cited any protesters for violating the outdoor gathering limit.
“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,” Justin Sok, a lay pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist, told The Washington Post.
The church so far has not defied the rules and is willing to implement health guidelines. It is also asking the court to immediately set aside the cap on outdoor gatherings so it can hold services in the district. Its lawsuit challenges restrictions on indoor worship, as well. The court hasn’t set a hearing date for the request.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, commended Capitol Hill Baptist for seeking a peaceable resolution with authorities. “Let’s pray that the district will quickly reconsider their actions or that the courts will do so for them and that the church and the government in our nation’s capital can both serve their neighbors freely in their respective spheres,” he told Baptist Press.
Meanwhile in Southern California, Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church’s lawsuit against coronavirus restrictions continues winding its way through the courts. The congregation has met inside its building without requiring masks or social distancing since late July. Los Angeles County asked a court to hold the Sun Valley, Calif., church in contempt, but the judge on Thursday postponed that decision until Nov. 13.
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.