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DC to pay $220K for restricting Baptist church’s in-person worship during pandemic

The District of Columbia and Mayor Muriel Bowser have agreed to pay $220,000 as part of a legal settlement with a local Baptist church that sued the city over in-person worship restrictions during the pandemic. 

Last September, Capitol Hill Baptist Church sued the district over the government’s ban on outdoor worship services that had more than 100 people in attendance.

In a settlement agreement and release approved on Thursday, the city agreed to pay $220,000 to the counsels representing the church, which broke down to $210,000 for the law firm WilmerHale and $10,000 for the national legal nonprofit First Liberty Institute.

As explained in the settlement, the district has lifted earlier meeting restrictions so that Capitol Hill Baptist can gather indoors for worship services.

“The District agrees that it will not enforce any current or future COVID-19 restrictions to prohibit CHBC from gathering as one congregation in the District of Columbia,” explained the settlement.

“The District further agrees that, should it decide that new restrictions on religious gatherings are necessary during the current, or any future, COVID-19 (or variant thereof) public health emergency, it will not impose restrictions on CHBC that are more restrictive than the restrictions on comparable secular activities, as defined by the Supreme Court.”

Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, said in a statement that Capitol Hill Baptist “is relieved and grateful that this ordeal is behind them.”

“All Capitol Hill Baptist Church ever asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church,” stated Sasser. “Government officials need to know that illegal restrictions on First Amendment rights are intolerable and costly.”

In March 2020, as part of the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Bowser issued an executive order restricting the capacity for religious services of 10 or more people. The restriction was eventually expanded to no more than 100 people or 50% of the building capacity.

The 850-member Capitol Hill Baptist filed its lawsuit last September, arguing that the restrictions unfairly burdened houses of worship compared to comparable secular entities.

U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee, granted an injunction in favor of the church last October, arguing that the “current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion.”

“… the District has failed to offer evidence at this stage showing that it has 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,” wrote McFadden.

Soon after, the church held its first outdoor service since the litigation began, meeting at Anacostia Park in Southeast D.C. on a Sunday morning.

The attendees wore face masks and maintained social distancing in keeping with the official public health recommendations at that time.

“It is absolutely appropriate to take stock, to give thanks, to give honor to whom honor is due, to recognize the many blessings that our government continually secures and provides for us,” Associate Pastor Bobby Jamieson preached at the October 2020 service.

“The only conditions that justify disobedience to legitimate government authority, legitimate earthly authority are when they either command something God forbids or forbid something God commands.”