Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) is being unreasonably burdened by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. government with its anti-Covid regulations that effectively bar members of the congregation from exercising their First Amendment right to religious freedom, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
“Here, Defendants (collectively, the Honorable Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia) are imposing a substantial burden, within the meaning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), on Plaintiff Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s religious exercise by denying the church the ability to gather as a single body as required by its sincere religious faith,” DOJ said in a Statement of Interest filed Friday with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“This triggers strict scrutiny: Defendants must meet the high burden of showing that their actions support a compelling governmental interest pursued through the least restrictive means.
“Strict scrutiny also applies because Defendants also appear to be discriminating against the church by forbidding its proposed outdoor worship service for up to 1,000 persons, while repeatedly allowing outdoor protests and gatherings of similar and often much larger size.
“To be put simply, Defendants’ current approach to COVID19 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 differential treatment.
“Under the Free Speech Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, Defendants can only deny a permit to the church for its proposed outdoor religious worship in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs if they meet strict scrutiny. Unless Defendants can carry this heavy burden, the church has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its claim under the Free Exercise Clause and Free Speech Clause of the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, respectively, and under RFRA.”
The statement said DOJ has a direct interest in the case because it “raises issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion.”
Attorney General Bill Barr has also made protection of religious liberty a top DOJ priority and expressed concern about the increasing loss of public understanding of and appreciation for the fundamental link between individual liberty and religious freedoms.
“That crucial link between religion and liberty, so well understood at the Founding, is all too often forgotten today. In American public discourse, perhaps no concept is more misunderstood than the notion of ‘separation of church and state,’” Barr recently told the annual gathering of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.
“Militant secularists have long seized on that slogan as a facile justification for attempting to drive religion from the public square and to exclude religious people from bringing a religious perspective to bear on conversations about the common good,” Barr said.
In announcing the Statement of Interest in the CHBC case, DOJ Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who heads the department’s Civil Rights Division, said
“The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. 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.”
And Acting D.C. U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin added in the same DOJ statement that “one of the most foundational rights protected by the Bill of Rights is the free exercise of religion. 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.”