On October 9, a federal judge ruled that Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C., can gather for outdoor worship. The church, which offers no online services, had been denied a waiver from the District of Columbia’s ban on religious gatherings of more than 100 people. Meanwhile, it held outdoor worship in a field in Virginia, where restrictions are looser.
In granting CHBC a preliminary injunction, Judge Trevor McFadden said D.C.’s pandemic-related limitations “substantially burden” the church’s exercise of religion. He added that CHBC “is likely to succeed in proving” that D.C.’s restrictions violate the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Ruling Restores Equity, Says Capitol Hill Baptist Church
According to CHBC’s lawsuit, senior pastor Mark Dever doesn’t offer livestreamed worship because videos aren’t “a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together.” Judge McFadden agreed, saying D.C.’s tight restrictions on religious gatherings “ignore the Church’s sincerely held (and undisputed) belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation.”
Though government officials proposed alternatives such as multiple services, drive-in worship, and virtual broadcasts, McFadden ruled, “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’” (from Hebrews 10:25).
CHBC argued that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser supported large mass protests this summer and that area restaurants have no limits on outdoor customers.
After the victory, CHBC Pastor Justin Sok said, “Our government is restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic.” He added, “A church is not a building that can be opened or closed. A church is not an event to be watched. A church is a community that gathers regularly, and we are thankful that such communities are once again being treated fairly by our government.”
Sok also said CHBC appreciates the mayor’s efforts “to protect the public health of our city while balancing the importance of various First Amendment rights.” The congregation, he added, “continues to pray for God’s mercy in ending the ongoing pandemic, that he would protect the lives and well-being 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.”
More Kudos for the Court Decision
Travis Wussow of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission also applauded the “excellent” opinion. “This is a critical step in [CHBC’s] efforts to safely and wisely meet,” he says. “The judge made note of both the church’s theological convictions and their efforts to work with the city before even pursuing litigation.”
The U.S. Justice Department had submitted a statement of support for CHBC. Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband calls the ruling “a victory for religious liberty and the rule of law,” adding, “The Department of Justice is…grateful that members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church will be able to worship together on Sunday.”
Jonathan Leeman, an elder at another Baptist church in Washington, D.C., addressed the controversy last week in Christianity Today. “A church is not a church if its members do not all regularly meet together, minus those who are providentially hindered such as the sick, the traveling, the childcare workers, or even the quarantined,” he writes, “All of us have a vested interest in not letting government officials set the definition for what a church is.”