Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), pastored by well-known author and Senior Pastor Mark Dever, is suing the capitol city of the United States (District of Columbia) and Mayor Muriel Bowser for restricting their right to hold mass worship gatherings. The lawsuit filed on September 22, 2020 in the U.S. District Court, states that Mayor Bowser and the District of Columbia are violating CHBC’s rights under the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
CHBC, a Southern Baptist Church, is located just six blocks from the United States Capitol and has 853 members. The church welcomes between 900 and 1000 people at their Sunday morning worship gatherings in normal times.
Since its founding in 1878, CHBC has met in-person every Sunday except for three weeks during the Spanish Flu in 1918. That changed following Mayor Bowser’s first orders concerning COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. Since that time, the members of CHBC—most of whom live in the District—have been unable to meet in person, as one congregation inside District limits (even outdoors).
We are thankful for our mayor and her dedicated efforts to support various interests in D.C. balancing First Amendment freedoms with public health concerns. Meeting in-person as one congregation is a deeply-held religious conviction for which there is no substitute. Our simple desire is to have a community and one that meets together safely.
CHBC has applied for multiple waivers to the policy, but District officials refuse to provide CHBC with a waiver beyond 100 persons as part of a mass gathering. The lawsuit filed Tuesday simply asks that CHBC be permitted to meet in-person, with similar restrictions as area businesses and other gatherings have employed to protect public health.
A church is not a building that can be opened and closed. A church is not an event to be watched. A church is a community that gathers regularly and that community should be treated fairly by the District government.
Mayor’s Orders Restrict Outdoor Gatherings
The 26 page lawsuit explains that Mayor Bowser’s orders, issued in March of 2020 and which currently remain, prohibit worship gatherings over 100 people even if they are held outdoors and worshipers are practicing social distancing and wearing masks. According to the suit, this order will remain in effect until a vaccine has been developed and made widely available. On June 10, 2020 CHBC attempted to obtain a waiver from Mayor Bower’s office that would allow them to gather, but their application was rejected the third week of September (last week).
Mass Gathering Protests Were Permitted
On June 6, 2020 Mayor Bowser not only permitted a mass gathering protest, but gave a speech at it. As she spoke to a densely-packed crowd into a microphone, Bowser pulled her face mask off. The lawsuit says tens of thousands of people attended the event, and four other events similar to it happened between June and August 2020. In its suit, CHBC claims the Mayor, by her own admission, has favored “certain expressive gatherings” over worship gatherings citing, “First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same” because “in the United States of America, people can protest.”
Video Sermon’s Aren’t A Substitute
According to the lawsuit, Pastor Mark Dever has not been live streaming the sermons of Capitol Hill Baptist Church during the pandemic because “a video sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together.” The church holds the belief that corporate worship gatherings of its entire congregation is a “central element of religious worship commanded by the Lord.”
Dever posted a video on May 20, 2020 entitled “Why Christians Gather?” The pastor explained Christians are called to get together. Dever shared some church history, explaining how Christians gathered in the temples until they were thrown out, meeting in the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), and gathering in large homes so many could worship together regularly. He explained that Christians gather together to hear the Bible read, hear the Bible preached, join together in prayer, give, baptize, and to take the Lord’s supper. Speaking about the buildings themselves, Dever said “they’re not special sacred places, buildings we are trying to get in, so we can get to some mystical power source. What we want to do is be with each other as the people of God. Ultimately the church is not something we want to be in as a building, it’s a people we want to be with.”
Capitol Hill Baptist Church Is Currently Meeting In A Field
The Washington Post reports that CHBC has been meeting in a field outside of a Virginia church for the last several months. The lawsuit states that the church has been offered to use a large outdoor space that would accommodate their numbers but has to have a waiver from the District of Columbia government to be able to use it. CHBC pledges to “ensure that each household is distanced by at least six feet” and “instruct all individuals without medical exemptions above the age of two years to wear masks for the duration of the service.”
Other Churches Have Filed Lawsuits
Earlier this September, North Valley Baptist Church in Santa Clara, California dropped their lawsuit with the county over orders that prohibited them from meeting indoors. The church decided to start meeting outdoors instead. On September 10, 2020 a California judge sided with Los Angeles county’s move to shut down Grace Community Church’s indoor worship gatherings because they violate the county’s COVID-19 mandatory regulations.
Read the entire lawsuit filed by CHBC here.