The District of Columbia won’t enforce “current or future” restrictions on worship services of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, or CHBC, settling a federal lawsuit the congregation filed in September 2020 alleging unfair treatment during the pandemic.
The District will also pay $220,000 to the church’s legal representatives, Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP and First Liberty Institute. The sum represents “all attorney’s fees and costs” the law firms incurred while representing CHBC.
“All Capitol Hill Baptist Church ever asked is for equal treatment under the law so they could meet together safely as a church,” Hiram Sasser, First Liberty Institute executive general counsel, said in a statement. “The church is relieved and grateful that this ordeal is behind them. Government officials need to know that illegal restrictions on First Amendment rights are intolerable and costly.”
In settling the lawsuit, D.C. acting Deputy Attorney General Fernando Amarillas agreed that should the District impose new restrictions during any future public health emergency, “it will not impose restrictions on CHBC that are more restrictive than [those] on comparable secular activities.”
Such disparities have been a sticking point throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw lockdowns begin in March 2020. Many jurisdictions imposed more severe restrictions on houses of worship than were placed on similar secular activities. Religious liberty advocates claimed such restrictions were an unfair imposition on the free exercise of religion, a right guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
More than one congregation met in defiance of state or local size restrictions, with Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, led by Pastor John MacArthur, among the most defiant. The congregation was threatened with fines and saw its lease on an adjacent public parking lot terminated during the crisis.
The Supreme Court of the United States struck down several prohibitions on religious gatherings during the crisis, including those regarding Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and Pentecostal congregations. Eventually, states such as California, which had sought to impose such limits, backed away from restricting churches more than other groups.