The Justice Department is supporting the Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, DC, in its lawsuit against the District of Columbia and Mayor Muriel Bowser over ongoing worship restrictions (indoors and outdoors) amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in federal district court in Washington, DC, arguing 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.
"The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution," explained Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband. "We are a nation dedicated to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The District of Columbia has, unfortunately, neglected these rights. The Justice Department is committed to defending both of these fundamental freedoms and in supporting all Americans' rights to worship as they choose."
As CBN News reported late last month, CHBC, a congregation with a 142-year history and more than 850 members, filed a lawsuit against the District and the mayor for the restrictions placed on gatherings of more than 100 people to worship.
"Since its founding in 1878, CHBC has met in-person every Sunday except for three weeks during the Spanish Flu in 1918," the church said in a statement. "That changed following Mayor Bowser's first orders concerning COVID-19 on March 11, 2020."
CHBC notes that Mayor Bowser has permitted mass gatherings and protests over racial equality where hundreds of people assembled, yet her orders prohibit gatherings of more than 100 people for the purpose of worship.
The church even sought a permit to hold outdoor worship services in excess of the 100-person limit but was denied by the city.
The CHBC draws attention to the importance of in-person worship services since the church does not have an online ministry.
"One of the most foundational rights protected by the Bill of Rights is the free exercise of religion," said Acting US Attorney Michael Sherwin for the District of Columbia. "The Justice Department is committed to upholding all the civil rights protected under the First Amendment, be it peaceable assembly in protest or practicing faith."
The United States' brief explains there is no constitutional or statutory basis for allowing protests and rallies attended by thousands of people, while at the same time silencing religious worship. The brief also explains the city bears a high burden of proof to justify its actions under the First Amendment and RFRA because its actions impose a "substantial burden" on religious exercise.
Attorneys representing CHBC include WilmerHale, LLP, and First Liberty Institute.
The DOJ's statement of interest in the case is a part of Attorney General William P. Barr's initiative, announced last April, urging the nation's federal prosecutors to "be on the lookout" for state and local coronavirus-related restrictions that could be unconstitutional.
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