The Department of Justice announced it had filed a statement of interest in the case filed by Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., against the District of Columbia and Mayor Muriel Bowser. The 853-member church has a strong religious conviction that it must meet weekly and in person, as a single body, for worship. As a result of Mayor Bowser’s onerous COVID-19 orders (first capping worship services at 10 people and now 100), Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) has not been able to meet together in the District since March. As a temporary measure, they’ve been meeting in a field in Virginia.
The congregation had asked the mayor for permission to meet at the 45,000-plus-seat Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which would give them ample room to social distance, but the city denied the application for a waiver, and also the church’s appeals. (More background here.)
Finally, on Sept. 22, the church filed a lawsuit and a request for a temporary restraining order asking that they be allowed to hold outdoor worship services in the District of Columbia, citing the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. CHBC says the mayor has double standards—one for churches and another for large gatherings of protesters. The lawsuit pointed out that the mayor herself has attended some of these gatherings.
“The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, in a press release. “We are a nation dedicated to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The District of Columbia has, unfortunately, neglected these rights. The Justice Department is committed to defending both of these fundamental freedoms and in supporting all Americans’ rights to worship as they choose.”
The statement of interest is part of Attorney General William P. Barr’s initiative, announced April 27, directing the DOJ to “review governmental policies around the country to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“While a local government has significant discretion to decide what measures to adopt to meet a public health threat, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution requires that, whatever level of restrictions it adopts, government must treat religious gatherings the same as comparable nonreligious gatherings, absent the government meeting strict scrutiny, that is, proving that it has a compelling governmental interest pursued through the least restrictive means,” the DOJ argued in the statement of interest. “Similarly, the Free Speech Clause forbids the government from discriminating against certain speech while privileging other speech with a viewpoint favored by the government, unless it meets strict scrutiny.”
The District of Columbia is also bound by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Justice Department said. RFRA “requires that any government action imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise meet strict scrutiny.” The city’s current approach to COVID-19 restrictions “has the effect of treating some forms of protected First Amendment activity differently than other forms of comparable activity and in so doing singles out religious exercise for differential treatment.” CHBC has demonstrated that its lawsuit is likely to succeed on merits, the statement of interest noted.
In its filing, the DOJ said that while the United States “has a strong interest, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in ensuring the development and maintenance of the best possible public health strategies to combat the virus and protect the people of the United States from harm,” that interest “must be balanced with constitutional liberties.”
“Although the precise legal tests may change based on the specific restriction at issue, the bottom line remains the same: there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and our fundamental rights,” the DOJ lawyers declared. [Emphasis added] “Individual rights set forth in the Constitution are always operative and restrain government action.”
Mayor Bowser and the District of Columbia clearly don’t agree. Protesters who have the “correct” political views are allowed to gather in the streets with impunity—and without anyone in the mayor’s office, the MSM, or Democratic Party saying boo about it—while churches are told to close their doors and forsake their religious teachings. The aforementioned leftists have no use for those “icky” Christians who insist on obeying the Bible, but, ah, the protesters and rioters—they, and they alone, are worthy of robust constitutional protections amid the pandemic. That hypocrisy is what CHBC takes issue with. The Justice Department is insisting that the discrimination stop.
People need Jesus during these tumultuous times. Christians need to be in church, where they can obey biblical mandates to hear the Word of God preached, partake of Communion, and fellowship together. A few brave churches are wading into the fray, asking only to be treated the way other groups are and for the government to abide by the First Amendment and RFRA. William Barr and Trump’s Department of Justice are making it clear that government “shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Period. Not even during a pandemic.