The Department of Justice is siding with the Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s attempts to hold outdoor worship services in Washington, D.C.
The DOJ filed a statement of interest in the case contending the Constitution and federal law require the District of Columbia to allow the church to hold services outdoors, in the same way D.C. allows other types of outdoor First Amendment activities, including peaceful protests.
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The U.S. government argues in the brief that, “While a local government has significant discretion to decide what measures to adapt to meet a public health threat, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution requires that, whatever level of restriction it adopts, government must treat religious gatherings the same as comparable nonreligious gatherings.”
The statement of interest was filed in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, which challenges DC’s refusal to allow certain outdoor worship because of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions. The suit points out that while places of worship are limited to 100 people at outdoor worship services, these limits do not apply to outdoor protests and rallies, which have been attended by thousands of people.
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“The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. We are a nation dedicated to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The District of Columbia has, unfortunately, neglected these rights,” said Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to defending both of these fundamental freedoms and in supporting all Americans’ rights to worship as they choose.”
Capitol Hill Baptist Church has more than 850 members and its leadership wants to meet in person as a complete body for worship each Sunday. The church asked for a permit to hold worship outdoors in excess of the 100-person limit and was denied by the city.
The Department of Justice, under Attorney General Barr, has maintained that there is no basis for allowing protests attended by thousands, while disallowing religious worship. The brief asserts Washington D.C.’s actions impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise.