Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, Mayor of the District of Columbia, No. 20-02710 (TNM). Order granting preliminary relief entered October 9, 2020.
The United States District Court for the District of Columbia has enjoined enforcement of the District of Columbia’s prohibitions on certain public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic because those restrictions may be found to violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”) because the rules substantially burden the free exercise of religion and because the District of Columbia has not demonstrated that sweeping pandemic-related measures, designed and enforced unevenly, are the least restrictive means of ensuring public health.
At the outset of the perceived public emergency precipitated by the contagious COVID-19 virus, the Mayor of the District of Columbia promulgated orders restricting public gatherings. Over time some restrictions have been relaxed, permitting some resumption of restaurant commerce, for example, while others, such as those restricting the size of gatherings, have not been. And notwithstanding the restrictions, the District has permitted and the Mayor has participated in, sizable protest gatherings.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church believes that its congregants are biblically bound to gather in person weekly, a practice begun in 1978 and continuing until March of 2020, with a brief interruption during the influenza outbreak of 1918.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church has asserted, and a federal district judge has agreed, that the District of Columbia’s current prohibition on indoor or outdoor gatherings of more than 100 persons, even if masked and ‘socially distancing’ substantially burdens congregants’ religious freedoms.
It is no answer, the Court has found, that substitutes for gatherings may exist or that the congregation has left the District of Columbia in order to gather, precluding the attendance of some who are without transportation.
The “substitution” arguments are unavailing, the court concluded, as they do not fairly demonstrate that the District of Columbia has enacted the least restrictive means of ensuring public health.
The questions to be asked in RFRA review are not confined to generalities but to the impact of burdens on individuals as well as institutions.
The government cannot meet its burden where it has freely abandoned the very restraints it designed, as where the Mayor participated in large public protests.
The federal court noted that it has declined to address the question of the applicability of an enhanced standard for mandatory injunctive relief, as the relief requested and granted requires restraint from enforcement which does not compel the government to act. The court observed that in any case the higher standard, if applied, could be met.
The Court also noted that it has declined to address First Amendment claims at this time because it has proceeded with RFRA analysis.
The Court rejected the District of Columbia’s untimely filings and rejected its argument that the church was itself untimely in seeking judicial relief, as the Court felt that the church ought not be penalized for first attempting negotiation before commencing litigation.
For the removal of doubt, the order is appealable.
The case has attracted a chorus of elected officials as amici, as well as a religious liberty advocacy group, which has compiled a summary of state pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings.