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Church wins lawsuit over Washington DC Covid restrictions

A church in the nation’s capital has been awarded $220,000 over limits on gatherings during Covid. Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Washington DC restrictions that a judge now says were illegal.

Leaders of the church appealed to Washington D.C. officials since Mayor Muriel Bowser’s restrictions were issued on March 11, 2020. Many accused the mayor of instituting draconian measures that banned all outdoor and indoor church meetings of 100 or more. The ban even applied when participants were following CDC guidelines of masking up and social distancing. The restrictions pitted the city’s black clergy against Bowser who is also black. They were soon joined by white and Latino pastors in an uncommon show of unity.

That’s when Senior Pastor Mark Dever and CHBC’s elders won a preliminary injunction (pdf) against Bowser’s restrictions, allowing the congregation to resume worship services outdoors with proper precautions such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

In a settlement (pdf) between the two parties signed on July 8, 2021, Mayor Bowser, a Democrat, and her administration agreed to pay $220,000 to church lawyers at WilmerHale and the First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based law firm that specializes in First Amendment religious freedom litigation.

READ: Washington Cathedral tolls bells for Covid

As per the settlement, the district “agrees that it will not enforce any current or future COVID-19 restrictions to prohibit CHBC from gathering as one congregation” in the district.

The district further agrees that, should it impose new restrictions on religious gatherings in the name of mitigating COVID-19 or variant thereof,  they will not be more restrictive than on “comparable secular activities, as defined by the Supreme Court,” the settlement also states.

The District also agreed to pay the church’s legal fees.

Senior Pastor Mark Dever is a nationally known evangelical leader and the founder of the 9Marks organization, which provides ministry and administrative resources for churches across the nation, and has been at CHBC since 1994.

He and the 850-member congregation has held worship services every Sunday since 1878, except for three weeks during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.

“All Capitol Hill Baptist Church ever asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church,” said Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel for First Liberty Institute.

“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,” he said, reported the Washington Times.

Lockdowns, which began in March 2020 in the United States, forced religious services, including those regarding Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and Pentecostal congregations, to come to a halt throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the forced closures became a sticking point when some jurisdictions imposed more severe restrictions on houses of worship than were placed on similar secular activities.

The Supreme Court struck down several prohibitions on religious gatherings during the crisis, and eventually multiple states began easing the restrictions and allowing houses of worship to open for in-person services, albeit with virus-related modifications in place.

–Wire services