In a lawsuit filed against Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration, the Capitol Hill Baptist Church alleged this week that Bowser has been applying coronavirus lockdown rules according to her own political whims, violating the rights of worshipers in the process and ultimately clashing with the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, accuses the mayor of giving preferential treatment to some groups while insisting that others obey the lockdown mandates to the letter.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that Bowser is in violation of the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They say it is an outrage that their church was denied permission to gather more than 100 worshipers in an outdoor setting while, at the same time, Bowser has thrown her support behind mass protests in D.C. where thousands have gathered to demonstrate for racial justice.
The lawsuit specifically noted a June 6 protest outside the White House: “Mayor Bowser attended the mass protest and said to the thousands in attendance, ‘It’s so wonderful to see everyone peacefully protesting, wearing their masks.’ The city closed dozens of city streets to vehicular traffic on that day in order to accommodate the ‘First Amendment demonstrations.’”
On the other hand, the church argued, her office has ignored several of their requests for a waiver that would allow Capitol Hill Baptist churchgoers to gather and worship with strict social distancing and mask guidelines. Ultimately, Bowser’s office rejected those requests altogether.
“The Church takes no issue with Defendants’ decision to permit these gatherings, which are themselves protected by the First Amendment, and the Church supports this exercise of First Amendment rights. The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants’ decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others,” the lawsuit said. “The First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship. But Mayor Bowser, by her own admission, has preferred the former over the latter.”
In a public statement, CHBC Pastor Justin Sok said that the rules should be applied evenly across the board.
“The lawsuit filed Tuesday simply asks that CHBC be permitted to meet in-person, with similar restrictions as area businesses and other gatherings have employed to protect public health,” Sok said. “A church is not a building that can be opened and closed. A church is not an event to be watched. A church is a community that gathers regularly and that community should be treated fairly by the District government.”