U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Trevor McFadden ruled late Friday in favor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in its request for a preliminary injunction against the District of Columbia government’s ban on congregational meetings of more than 100 people.
“The Court determines that the church is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions violate [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993] RFRA,” McFadden wrote.
“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,” McFadden continued.
Congregants of CHBC, which presently includes numerous members of Congress and aides who live in the neighborhood just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol Complex, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, have been meeting for worship, fellowship and Bible study since 1878
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an edict in March banning church meetings of 100 or more people gathering indoors or outdoors regardless if participants maintained social distance and wore masks.
But the 850-member CHBC maintains the New Testament requires church members to meet in person regularly, so the Mayor’s edict effectively shut down the church’s Sunday worship services and many of its meetings during the regular week. The congregation has recently been meeting in an open field near Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Amicus briefs supporting CHBC were filed earlier this month by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and 34 Republican senators. The church, which is represented by the Plano, Texas-based First Liberty Institute, filed suit only after six months of seeking a compromise with D.C. officials proved futile.
“Yesterday, in the heart of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., a federal district court ruled that the fundamental right of all Americans to worship endures during our COVID-19 response,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement Saturday.
“Last night’s decision is a victory for religious liberty and the rule of law. In an overwhelming vote, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in order to guarantee our nation’s first freedom is always upheld. The Department of Justice is grateful the court ruled preliminarily with this in mind and is grateful that members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church will be able to worship together on Sunday.”
“I am gratified that the court upheld the right of worshipers in the District of Columbia to exercise their First Freedom of religious exercise, in a safe manner,” Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin for the District of Columbia said the same statement.
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