In showing how their religious freedom has been clearly violated, in a way that proves an existential threat to their existence as a local church, CHBC provides an example for other churches to follow.
A prominent evangelical church in Washington, D.C., provides a model for how churches should fight for religious liberty during the pandemic.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC), an 850-member church led by TGC Council Emeritus member Mark Dever, has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel E. Bowser is violating the First Amendment and facilitating discrimination by allowing large anti-racism protests while severely limiting worship services.
According to the lawsuit, Mayor Bowser issued an order in March that prohibits gatherings of more than 100 people for purposes of worship, even if held outdoors and even if worshipers wear masks and practice appropriate social distancing. Under the District’s four-stage plan, CHBC’s in-person worship gatherings will be prohibited until scientists develop either a widely available vaccine or an effective therapy for COVID-19. In June, CHBC filed an application with the Mayor’s Office seeking a waiver from Mayor Bowser’s prohibition on large gatherings. That application was rejected this month.
Despite this prohibition on large gatherings, on four separate occasions between June and August 2020, police closed city streets to accommodate protests and marches of thousands to tens of thousands of people. Bowser herself even coordinated with organizers of a five-hour event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for several thousand people. When asked why she celebrates mass protests while houses of worship remain closed, Bowser said, “First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same. And that’s why we don’t see our cities opened up to all of the massive events. Now, in the United States of America, people can protest.” As CHBC notes in their lawsuit, people can gather for worship under the First Amendment as well.
Why It Matters:
Capitol Hill Baptist Church is certainly not the first large church to fight restrictions on gathering since the pandemic began. But there are three reasons that set this church apart, and that make them a paradigmatic example of how to defend a church’s right to assemble during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. For CHBC, it’s about existence, not preferences.
Since 1878, CHBC has worshiped together under a covenant, a statement on how they agree to live together as a church. Part of that covenant includes the promise, “We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.” This belief, based on Hebrews 10:25, is shared by almost all Christians. But CHBC has an interpretation that is not shared by all evangelicals. For example, CHBC believes that a central part of following Christ and being a local church is for all members to worship together at the same time and in the same location. CHBC does not offer multiple Sunday morning worship services or a virtual worship service. The congregation believes that “without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically ordered church.”
You don’t have to share CHBC’s convictions on this point (I don’t myself) to appreciate how they differ from some other churches. Many large churches offer alternative ways of “gathering,” whether through livestreaming, multiple services, or meeting in various locations. They don’t consider the church’s essence to be compromised if the members can’t gather together as one. For most larger churches today, in other words, a single assembly is a preference, while for CHBC it is an existential requirement.