The District of Columbia has agreed to pay $220,000 in legal fees to settle a lawsuit with a local church over the District's COVID-19 restrictions.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church filed a lawsuit against the District in September 2020. The church argued that it had the right to "gather for corporate worship free from the threat of governmental sanction" and that DC mayor Muriel Bowser needed to stop violating the church's First and Fifth Amendment rights. While the church had operated according to the guidelines, it argued that the local government favored particular gatherings over others; most notably protests like Black Lives Matter.
Capitol Hill was a unique church in that it went out of its way to avoid using digital platforms to broadcast its message. Mark Dever, the lead pastor, stated that he would not hold online services because "a video of a sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling and all the various means of God's grace in that." It also acted as the first religious legal challenge to the city's pervasive pandemic restrictions. The Catholic Archdiocese also sued Bowser over attendance limits, claiming they were excessive and ineffective.
Capitol Hill's lawsuit would receive support from the Department of Justice. The DoJ stated in a brief that "To be put simply, Defendants' current approach to COVID-19 limitations has the effect of treating some forms of protected First Amendment activity differently than other forms of comparable activity and in so doing singles out religious exercise for different treatment."
Capitol Hill would win their court case in October, forcing the city to lift capacity restrictions so that the church could host outdoor services in Virginia. The District's legal leadership was noticeably quiet until recently.
This week, the District released a settlement promising to pay Capitol Hill's legal fees. While the District did not claim any liability or wrongdoing, the settlement stated that it "will not enforce any current or future covid-19 restrictions to prohibit CHBC from gathering as one congregation" in DC.
The settlement will grant $210,000 to the legal firm Wilmerhale and $10,000 to First Liberty Institute, who contributed to the initial lawsuit.