Oct 7 2020

 Washington, D.C., Mayor Permits Mass Protests, Discriminates Against Church Gatherings

WASHINGTON, D.C. -  U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) in filing an amicus brief on behalf of 34 Senators supporting the Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s (CHBC) lawsuit against the Mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser. Mayor Bowser has permitted and participated in several mass protests in recent months. However, the city’s COVID-19 regulations prohibit a religious gathering of more than 100 individuals outdoors. In the brief, the Senators argue that the selective enforcement of the District’s rules violates the church’s First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). 

The Senators argue in part, “Whether viewed as a matter of free speech, the freedom of assembly, or the free exercise of religion protected by the Constitution and RFRA, the result is the same: The Mayor’s discrimination against houses of worship rests on a mistaken, and unconstitutional, premise that one particular exercise of free speech—a church’s desire to gather together and worship their God—is subordinate to other First Amendment-protected activities. This Court should enforce the First Amendment’s promise of free speech for all by issuing a preliminary injunction to prevent the Mayor and the District of Columbia from prohibiting outdoor religious services that adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols.”

The CHBC has been meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., every Sunday for over 142 years. The only previous interruption in Sunday worship was for three weeks in October 1918 during the Spanish flu. When Mayor Bowser issued her original order in March 2020 prohibiting large gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, CHBC complied and discontinued worship services. 

The Mayor’s order continues to ban outdoor church services of more than 100 people, regardless of social distancing and mask wearing. At the same time, the Mayor and the District have supported an array of outdoor protests and gatherings by various groups since June 2020.

In June 2020 and again in September, CHBC applied for a waiver of the 100-person limit in order to hold church services outdoors in the District. The District denied the application, stating that waivers for houses of worship were being categorically denied.

CHBC filed a complaint on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.

The full text of the amicus brief may be viewed here.