Constitution and Federal Law Require District of Columbia to Accommodate Church’s Efforts to Hold Socially Distanced Outdoor Worship Services
The Justice Department today filed a statement of interest in federal district court in Washington, D.C., arguing the Constitution and federal law require the District of Columbia to accommodate Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s effort to hold worship services outdoors, at least to the same extent the District of Columbia allows other forms of outdoor First Amendment activity, such as peaceful protests.
The statement of interest was filed in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, a case challenging the District of Columbia’s refusal to allow outdoor worship because of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions. The suit challenges the permit denial under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The suit alleges that while places of worship are limited to 100 people at outdoor worship services, these limits do not apply to, among other things, outdoor protests and rallies accommodating thousands.
“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. “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.”
“One of the most foundational rights protected by the Bill of Rights is the free exercise of religion,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin for the District of Columbia. “The Justice Department is committed to upholding all the civil rights protected under the first amendment, be it peaceable assembly in protest or practicing faith.”
Capitol Hill Baptist Church is a church of more than 850 members with a strong religious conviction that it should meet in person as a complete body for worship each Sunday. It therefore sought a permit to hold worship outdoors in excess of the 100-person limit, which the city denied.
The United States’ brief explains there is no constitutional or statutory basis for allowing protests and rallies attended by thousands of people, while at the same time silencing religious worship. The brief also explains the city bears a high burden of proof to justify its actions under the First Amendment and RFRA because its actions impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, as the church has shown here.
The statement of interest is part of Attorney General William P. Barr’s initiative, announced April 27, directing Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, to review governmental policies around the country to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.