Judge sides with Capitol Hill Baptist Church against DC mayor's coronavirus rules

Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., judge filed a temporary injunction Friday allowing Capitol Hill Baptist Church to hold outdoor services with more congregants than the District allows.

Judge Trevor N. McFadden ruled that the Phase Two coronavirus restrictions limiting religious gatherings violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which applies to D.C. and federal agencies. 

"Amid COVID-19’s arrival and the District’s associated restrictions, a wave of protests swept the country beginning in late spring, and Washington, D.C. saw gatherings by the thousands," McFadden wrote in his opinion, adding that the church "contends that the District has supported these large gatherings as evidenced by, among other things, Mayor Bowser’s attendance at a protest on June 6, 2020."

The decision is a win for the church, which filed a lawsuit against D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Sept. 22 over the city's refusal to allow more than 100 people to attend outdoor services while wearing masks and remaining socially distanced.

"The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion," McFadden wrote in his opinion. "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."

Capitol Hill pastor Justin Sok expressed thanks for being able to "meet outdoors in Virginia over the last few months" and for the court's injunction, allowing the church to "enjoy the same rights and privileges in our own city" in a Saturday statement posted to Twitter.

 The church is "speaking with the operators of a variety of outdoor venues to move our weekly gatherings from Virginia to D.C."

"We continue to appreciate our mayor and her dedicated effort to protect the public health our city while balancing the importance of various First Amendment rights. With this ruling, our government is restoring equity by extending to religious gatherings the same protections that have been afforded other similar gatherings during this pandemic," Sok said.

Under D.C.'s Phase Two reopening guidelines, places of worship cannot hold outdoor or indoor services with attendance at more than 50 percent capacity, or 100 people.