A federal court has allowed Capitol Hill Baptist Church to hold services outdoors in a preliminary injunction issued as part of the lawsuit filed by the church.
The church, one of the biggest in the city, sued the District of Columbia in September regarding the health measures taken to contain the coronavirus pandemic that prevent gatherings of more than 100 people in places of worship.
The church accuses the District of violating its First and Fifth Amendment rights as it is not allowed to bring together its congregation consisting of over 850 people.
Regular services at the church were halted in March 2020, after DC Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public-health emergency.
The US District Court granted the church’s motion for injunctive relief late Friday that permits congregation members to gather outdoors as the lawsuit is ongoing. However, participants are required to wear face masks and practice social distancing.
“Except for a three-week hiatus during the peak of the Spanish flu in 1918, its members have continued to gather weekly, in person, ever since. Although the Church started with 31 members, today it has 853—most of whom live in the city,” according to the lawsuit.
The church says around 1,000 people attended the Sunday services before the COVID-19 crisis, and refuses to offer virtual worship services as it argues that “a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute.”
“The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion,” Judge Trevor McFadden concluded, adding that DC failed to present evidence showing “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.”
Pastor Justin Sok said in a statement that the church is thankful for the court’s decision.
The District is currently in Phase Two reopening. According to Bowser’s latest executive order, which was issued on June 22, “places of worship can operate services and activities with up to 100 people or up to 50% of their capacity, whichever is fewer, with strong safeguards and physical distancing.”