The Story: A prominent evangelical church in Washington, D.C., provides a model for how churches should fight for religious liberty during the pandemic.
UPDATE (Oct. 9, 2020): A federal court ruled the District of Columbia has likely violated the religious freedom of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and therefore cannot prevent the congregation from meeting outdoors with proper safety measures in place.
The Background: Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), an 850-member church led by TGC Council Emeritus member Mark Dever, has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel E. Bowser is violating the First Amendment and facilitating discrimination by allowing large anti-racism protests while severely limiting worship services.
According to the lawsuit, Mayor Bowser issued an order in March that prohibits gatherings of more than 100 people for purposes of worship, even if held outdoors and even if worshipers wear masks and practice appropriate social distancing. Under the District’s four-stage plan, CHBC’s in-person worship gatherings will be prohibited until scientists develop either a widely available vaccine or an effective therapy for COVID-19. In June, CHBC filed an application with the Mayor’s Office seeking a waiver from Mayor Bowser’s prohibition on large gatherings. That application was rejected this month.
Despite this prohibition on large gatherings, on four separate occasions between June and August 2020, police closed city streets to accommodate protests and marches of thousands to tens of thousands of people. Bowser herself even coordinated with organizers of a five-hour event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for several thousand people. When asked why she celebrates mass protests while houses of worship remain closed, Bowser said, “First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same. And that’s why we don’t see our cities opened up to all of the massive events. Now, in the United States of America, people can protest.” As CHBC notes in their lawsuit, people can gather for worship under the First Amendment as well.
Why It Matters: Capitol Hill Baptist Church is certainly not the first large church to fight restrictions on gathering since the pandemic began. But there are three reasons that set this church apart, and that make them a paradigmatic example of how to defend a church’s right to assemble during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. For CHBC, it’s about existence, not preferences. Since 1878, CHBC has worshiped together under a covenant, a statement on how they agree to live together as a church. Part of that covenant includes the promise, “We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.” This belief, based on Hebrews 10:25, is shared by almost all Christians. But CHBC has an interpretation that is not shared by all evangelicals. For example, CHBC believes that a central part of following Christ and being a local church is for all members to worship together at the same time and in the same location. CHBC does not offer multiple Sunday morning worship services or a virtual worship service. The congregation believes that “without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically ordered church.”
You don’t have to share CHBC’s convictions on this point (I don’t myself) to appreciate how they differ from some other churches. Many large churches offer alternative ways of “gathering,” whether through livestreaming, multiple services, or meeting in various locations. They don’t consider the church’s essence to be compromised if the members can’t gather together as one. For most larger churches today, in other words, a single assembly is a preference, while for CHBC it is an existential requirement.
2. For CHBC, it’s about the gathering, not the building. CHBC is attempting to meet in a way that protects the health and safety of its members. The church had secured a location that would comfortably accommodate its entire congregation, with all attendees wearing masks and each household distanced by at least six feet. This is different than some churches who have made meeting in their own physical building (not just meeting in general) a matter of religious freedom.
3. For CHBC, it’s about equitable treatment, not special preference for religion. How can a church determine if a restriction violates religious liberty? As religious liberty attorney Luke Goodrich says, churches must clearly consider what are and are not infringements of religious liberty.
“They must discern when to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), and when to obey the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1),” Goodrich argues. “A government that targets religious gatherings is infringing religious freedom. A government that imposes temporary limits on all gatherings in a pandemic is trying to protect public health.”
“Churches should also strive for peace with everyone (Heb. 12:14; Rom. 12:18),” Goodrich adds. “They should avoid using inflamed rhetoric or a posture of defiance to provoke a conflict with government officials who are attempting to navigate a pandemic. Instead, they should work with government officials, if possible, to find solutions that will enable them to continue ministering while still protecting public health.”
CHBC has clearly met this criteria. The Mayor’s Office has unapologetically imposed a double standard by allowing one type of event allowed by the First Amendment (mass political protests) while denying another (church gatherings). The District of Columbia has indisputably put an unlawful burden on CHBC’s right to peaceably assemble and to exercise their religion, by denying a waiver for their 1,000-person (socially distanced, outdoor) gathering—while allowing tens of thousands to meet for the purposes of protest. (Members of the church have said they don’t want the lawsuit to be seen as criticism of the protests.) CHBC also patiently attempted over a three-month period to convince Mayor Bowser to reconsider. Only when she refused did CHBC turn, after careful deliberation among the elders culminating in a congregational vote, to the final recourse of asking a federal court to restore their First Amendment rights.
In showing how their religious freedom has been clearly violated, in a way that proves an existential threat to their existence as a local church, CHBC provides an example for other churches to follow.