Capitol Hill Baptist case- COVID restrictions on gatherings unlawful

Most of us are chafing under restrictions on gatherings imposed by COVID-19 laws. Getting the balance right here is hard, and we want to give the government as much leeway as possible; but the restrictions have been very difficult for churches, and the rules adopted in some jurisdictions seem to discriminate against church meetings in comparison to other activities which are now allowed. These were the issues at stake in the recent decision of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v Bowser (Case No. 20-cv-02710 (TNM), McFadden USDJ, Oct 9, 2020).

Capitol Hill Baptist Church has been meeting in Washington DC for 142 years. In recent days it has been prevented from gathering all at one time by local rules restricting all church gatherings, wherever held, to the fewer of 50 percent capacity or 100 persons. The Church is theologically committed to the view that all members of the church should gather together physically on a Sunday in one meeting. As they usually have about 1000 people attending the meeting on Sundays, they have had to move their meetings across the State border to Virginia, where they have been meeting outdoors with social distancing precautions and facemasks. They would like to meet in this way in Washington DC. Their action against the Mayor of the District claimed that the rules in place breached the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). They have now been successful in obtaining an expedited preliminary injunction enjoining the District from enforcing their restrictions “insofar as they prevent the Church from holding socially-distanced outdoor worship services in which¬†congregants wear masks”- see pp 1-2 of the ruling.

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Some recent US Supreme Court decisions on law and religion

The approach of the official end of the judicial term in the US Supreme Court has seen a number of important law and religion-related decisions handed down in the last week. We have seen decisions relating to access to abortion; to whether the US government can require religious bodies to fund abortion and contraception; to the provision of state funds for religious schools; and to the question of whether discrimination law can be applied to teachers of religion at religious schools. (And all of those are in addition to the other recent major decision in Bostock on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, which I have noted previously.)

Each of the four cases here would warrant (and no doubt will produce) detailed academic commentary. But here I will simply flag the case and the general outlines of the reasoning for those who want to read more.

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