A US federal judge has cited scripture in his ruling against a new ban on outdoor worship gatherings.
Washington D.C. Judge Trevor McFadden, an appointee of President Trump, ruled against Mayor Muriel Bowser's new stipulation on Friday, allowing the D.C.- based Capitol Hill Baptist Church to continue holding its services outdoors.
Bowser had imposed a ban on indoor and outdoor worship gatherings of more than 100 people as part of a phased plan to reduce Covid-19 infections in the district.
In his ruling, Judge Trevor McFadden quoted Hebrews 10:25, saying, "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.'"
Last month, Capitol Hill Baptist Church filed a complaint against the city, insisting that it had violated the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“For CHBC, a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute,” Pastor Mark Dever said in the complaint.
“The Church does not offer virtual worship services, it does not utilise a multi-site model, and it does not offer multiple Sunday morning worship services."
In his ruling, the judge wrote that the court determines that the Church "is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions violate RFRA."
He added: "The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion. More, the District has failed to offer evidence at this stage showing that it has a compelling interest in preventing the Church from meeting outdoors with appropriate precautions, or that this prohibition is the least-restrictive means to achieve its interest. The Court will therefore grant the Church’s motion for injunctive relief.
“The Church has consistently represented that it will take appropriate precautions such as holding services outdoors, providing for social distancing, and requiring masks. As explained, the District has not put forward sufficient evidence showing that prohibiting a gathering with these precautions is necessary to protect the public.”
The US Department of Justice backed Capitol Hill Baptist Church in its legal challenge, arguing that the “the Constitution and federal law require the District of Columbia to accommodate Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s effort to hold worship services outdoors, at least to the same extent the District of Columbia allows other forms of outdoor First Amendment activity, such as peaceful protests."
In a separate statement, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, Eric Dreiband, noted that "the right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution" and that the US is "dedicated to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression."
"The District of Columbia has, unfortunately, neglected these rights," he added. "The Justice Department is committed to defending both of these fundamental freedoms and in supporting all Americans' rights to worship as they choose.”
In a statement, Capitol Hill Baptist pastor Justin Sok said:
"We have been thankful for the opportunity to meet outdoors in Virginia over the last few months and are thankful that the court has granted us the ability to enjoy the same rights and privileges in our own city. With this ruling in hand, we are speaking with the operators of a variety of outdoor venues to move our weekly gathering from Virginia to DC.
"We continue to appreciate our mayor and her dedicated efforts to protect the public health of our city while balancing the importance of various First Amendment rights. With this ruling, our government is restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic. We trust that this will be a blessing not only to our congregation but to the rest of our neighbors in DC."
Sok added that the church congregation "continues to pray for God's mercy in ending the ongoing pandemic, that he would protect the lives and wellbeing of our neighbors, and that many in our city in the coming months would experience the far greater freedom that comes from forgiveness through Jesus Christ."