Early in July, the Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C., was awarded $220,000 after it filed a federal lawsuit that challenged the district’s restrictions on gatherings at places of worship during the pandemic.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) leaders appealed to D.C. officials after Mayor Muriel Bowser issued restrictions on March 11 last year banning all indoor and outdoor church meetings of 100 or more, even if all participants practiced preventive measures.
Back in October 2020, Senior Pastor Mark Dever and CHBC’s elders won a preliminary injunction against Bowser’s restrictions. The congregation was allowed to resume worship services outdoors as long as people practiced proper precautions, like wearing face masks and maintaining social distance.
According to a settlement between the two parties, signed on July 8 this year, Bowser and her administration have agreed to pay $220,000 to church lawyers at WilmerHale and the First Liberty Institute, a law firm based in Texas that specializes in First Amendment religious freedom litigation.
The district has agreed that it will not enforce any current or future coronavirus restrictions that may prevent CHBC from gathering as one congregation within the district. Additionally, the district said that if it imposes new restrictions on religious gatherings to curb the spread of coronavirus or its variants, they will not be more restrictive than on "comparable secular activities."
The district will also cover CHBC's legal fees.
Dever, a nationally known evangelical leader, is also the founder of the 9Marks organization, a group that provides ministry and administrative resources for churches throughout the country. He has been serving at CHBC since 1994.
CHBC welcomes 850 members and the church has held worship services every Sunday since 1878.
Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, said that CHBC is only asking for equal treatment under the law so churchgoers can meet together safely as a congregation.
"The church is relieved and grateful that this ordeal is behind them. Government officials need to know that illegal restrictions on First Amendment rights are intolerable and costly," concluded Sasser.
Lockdowns in America first began in March 2020 and forced religious services, such as those of Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish and Pentecostal congregations, to cease amid the pandemic.
But the forced closures became a point of contention after some jurisdictions imposed more severe restrictions on houses of worship compared to those placed on secular activities. (Related: London police break up Good Friday mass for supposedly violating coronavirus regulations.)
The Supreme Court also struck down several prohibitions on religious gatherings during the pandemic while several states gradually began lifting the restrictions and allowing houses of worship to open for in-person services, but only with preventive measures and modifications in place.
Back in May, Gov. Gavin Newsom was ordered by a federal judge to pay $1.35 million over California's strict lockdown of 3,000 churches amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As governor, Newsom was ordered to cover all the costs and attorney fees for a lawsuit brought by a Pasadena church. According to the May 14 order, Newsom and all state officials are to stop regulating church attendance unless a specific set of infection statistics occur.
Visit Pandemic.news for more updates on how churches are fighting back against religious discrimination amid the coronavirus pandemic.