DOJ sides with DC church in lawsuit against city over COVID-19 restrictions

The Capitol Hill Baptist Church is suing D.C. and the mayor over the city’s mass gathering restrictions, and the U.S. Department of Justice is stepping in to support the church in its fight.

It comes in a statement of interest filing with the U.S. District Court of D.C. in the civil lawsuit against the District and Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The church claims D.C. denied it a permit for an outdoor service for its more than 850 worshippers, in which families would be socially distanced. Churches in the city are limited to 50% capacity, with a limit of 100 people.

“The Department of Justice is committed to upholding all the civil rights protected under the First Amendment, be it peaceable assembly in protest or practicing faith,” said Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in a statement.

In its filing, the DOJ agreed with the church’s argument that placing gathering restrictions on church service attendance, but not protests and rallies, violates the church’s First and Fifth Amendment rights. It argues there is no constitutional or statutory basis for allowing protests to occur but not large religious services.

“The church seeks to hold an expressive event consisting of an outdoor worship service with appropriate distancing and other precautionary measures, indeed one significantly smaller in size than the protests and March on Washington commemoration event in August 2020 that the Defendants allowed, and considerably smaller than the crowds at recent protests,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its filing.

The church in its lawsuit accuses the city of favoring “certain expressive gatherings over others,” and urges the judge to allow it to have a large Sunday service.

WTOP reached out to Bowser’s office for comment.

Another hearing in the case is set for Oct. 7.

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