U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., today welcomed the return of large, outdoor religious gatherings in the nation’s capital, including by Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Wicker led an amicus brief on behalf of 34 Senators supporting the church’s successful lawsuit against coronavirus restrictions that were applied by the District of Columbia to groups of faith but not mass protests and other large events. U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden agreed with the Senators’ argument and ruled in favor of the church.
“I am glad Capitol Hill Baptist and other faith groups can once again gather in the nation’s capital,” Wicker said. “This ruling sends an important message that the First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion apply to all Americans – even during a pandemic. I was happy to lend my support to this cause, and I look forwarding to attending church this weekend in Washington while the Senate remains in session.”
In his ruling, Judge McFadden wrote in part, “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 District of Columbia has until November 8, 2020 to appeal the decision.
Prior to the current pandemic, Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) has been meeting in Washington, D.C., every Sunday for over 142 years, with the exception of three Sundays during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
In March 2020, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an executive order banning outdoor church services of more than 100 people, regardless of social distancing and mask wearing. CHBC complied and discontinued worship services. At the same time, the Mayor and the District supported an array of outdoor protests and gatherings by various groups.
In June 2020 and again in September, CHBC applied for a waiver of the 100-person limit in order to hold church services outdoors in the District. The District denied the application, stating that waivers for houses of worship were being categorically denied. CHBC filed a complaint on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.
Wicker and 33 other U.S. Senators filed an amicus brief on October 7, 2020. The Senators argued that the selective enforcement of the District’s rules violated the church’s First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.