A prominent Baptist church in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is suing the District’s Democrat Mayor Muriel Bowser and her government, alleging that the city’s lingering coronavirus lockdown orders are being unfairly applied and violate the U.S. Constitution.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, attorneys representing Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) claimed that the District government is showing preferential treatment in how it enforces the repeatedly extended lockdown orders.
Claiming a violation of the First and Fifth Amendments, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the suit pointed out that while they are forbidden from congregating even outdoors in excess of 100 people, Bowser herself has expressed public support for the recent mass protests in the District where tens of thousands gathered.
A portion of the lawsuit documented the repeated times over the summer when mass protests violated the city’s lockdown orders, but for which there were no consequences. Referring to the June 6 protest near the White House, the suit notes, “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 suit further recalled how the city even closed “dozens of city streets to vehicular traffic on that day in order to accommodate the ‘First Amendment demonstrations.'”
By contrast, the suit continued, CHBC’s repeated requests for a waiver to meet even under strict social distancing and mask protocols were at first ignored, and then denied.
“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 suit 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.”
Justin Sok, a pastor at CHBC, said in a statement that their church has been shuttered for the longest time in its 142-year history, even longer than the three weeks they closed in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. Sok was respectful of the mayor but said, “Meeting in-person as one congregation is a deeply-held religious conviction for which there is no substitute. Our simple desire is to have a community and one that meets together safely.”
“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 continued. “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.”
Bowser has previously taken flak after what some deemed unfair application of lockdowns, such as when federal lawmakers who crammed into pews at the late Rep. John Lewis’ (D-GA) funeral in Atlanta were exempt from her two-week quarantine edict. Members of Congress were also exempt from the city-wide mask mandate, which required residents to wear masks even outside or risk a $1,000 fine.
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