A prominent church located at the seat of power in Washington D.C. has filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia over restrictions on worship gatherings.
The suit, filed by the historic Capitol Hill Baptist Church, claims that the District's administration is violating its First Amendment rights by openly tolerating mass protests while prohibiting worship services of more than 100 people, indoors or outdoors.
The church, which is located just around the corner from the Supreme Court of the United States, personally names the Mayor of the District of Columbia — Democrat Muriel Bowser — in the suit, accusing her of double standards.
"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 reads. “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, which is the first such challenge to be lodged in the captial, also points out that the mayor personally attended a protest in July. According to a report in the Washington Post, a vote taken at Capital Hill Baptist this weekend on whether or not to pursue litigation resulted in a 402-35 outcome in favour of the action.
The suit primarily requests that in-person worship gatherings be permitted outdoors without such severe number restrictions.
According to the District of Columbia's 'Phase Two' guidance document, worship gatherings must be limited to either 50 per cent of the capacity of the facility or space where the service is occurring, or 100 people, whichever is fewer. Capitol Hill Baptist regularly sees around 850 attendees.
In a statement, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, Rev. Thomas Bowen, 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.”
For the past few months, Capitol Hill Baptist has been meeting in a field outside a Virginia church. It has been seeking to move its services to large outdoor venues in order to accommodate more people. However, it cannot go ahead with the plans without approval from the District, requiring either an official waiver or a blanket amendment to the current guidance.
Washington D.C. has been in its Phase 2 response for three months. However, with some of its 10-point Covid-19 infection control criteria now met, Mayor Bowser has floated the idea of lifting some of the restrictions. Over the next fortnight, the District may begin to reopen city-owned indoor pools, allow additional activities in libraries and grant waivers for certain activities at businesses, such as live music.