Michelle Boorstein this morning has Washington Post coverage about a prominent Washington, D.C. congregation filing a legal challenge against the District of Columbia’s restrictions effectively forbidding worship services amid COVID-19.
A legal complaint filed by Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) notes that large anti-racism rallies have taken place outdoors without restriction. Churches are not permitted to meet in groups of more than 100, indoors or outdoors.
“For CHBC, a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute,” the complaint states. “The Church does not offer virtual worship services, it does not utilize a multi-site model, and it does not offer multiple Sunday morning worship services.”
Notably, the District of Columbia has many evangelical churches — some larger than CHBC — but only one is litigating.
Despite rejection of an application to resume outdoor in-person worship, the complaint argues application of the ban on large scale gatherings is discriminatory, and it’s easy to see why:
“For example, on June 6, 2020, Mayor Bowser appeared personally at an outdoor gathering of tens of thousands of people at the corner of 16th and H Streets, NW and delivered a speech describing the large gathering as ‘wonderful to see.’ Similarly, on four occasions between June and August 2020, the District’s Metropolitan Police Department closed city streets to accommodate protests and marches of thousands to tens of thousands of people. And only three weeks ago, the Mayor coordinated with organizers of the Commitment March on Washington to ‘re-imagine’ the five-hour event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for several thousand people in attendance to hear an array of speakers.”
The complaint notes that the church takes no issue with the gatherings.
“The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants’ decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others. The First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship. But Mayor Bowser, by her own admission, has preferred the former over the latter.”
Asked why she celebrates mass protests while houses of worship remain closed, Bowser responded that “First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same” because “in the United States of America, people can protest.” People can gather for worship under the First Amendment as well.
“CHBC’s membership reluctantly voted to initiate this lawsuit to reclaim their most fundamental of rights: the right to gather for corporate worship free from threat of governmental sanction.”
CHBC, or “Cap Bap” as it is commonly known, is associated with the Calvinist resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. According to church officials, the average age of its 850-person membership is 31. The congregation has a record of successfully planting and “re-seeding” older churches throughout the area, among them Anacostia River Church, Sterling Park Baptist in Loudoun County and Del Ray Baptist in Alexandria.
Congregational life is emphasized at CHBC, with membership required if churchgoers are to join a small group or to participate in most ministries aside from attending worship services. It is a significant exception in a culture where joining – let alone committing – to anything is uncommon.
It’s important to note that CHBC continues to meet outdoors during this time – just not in the District of Columbia. The church holds worship on Sunday evenings in the parking lot and field of a Fairfax County, Virginia church, where restrictions are less burdensome. It is a substantial drive from CHBC to Franconia Baptist Church, but attendees note that a surprisingly large number of congregants trek to the suburban site.
It seems fair for CHBC to argue that requiring members to have access to a car in order to drive 30 minutes outside of the District places an undue burden on those who seek to worship together even while following health guidelines.
CHBC Pastor Mark Dever has a video below explaining why Christians have historically gathered for worship: