Yesterday, after months of closure due to COVID, one of the nation’s most prominent conservative Southern Baptist Churches, Capitol Hill Baptist of Washington, D. C., had its lawyers file a suit against the city and its mayor arguing that the church’s constitutional rights continue to be violated under the city’s COVID Phase 2 rules which expressly allow meetings of up to 50% of a buildings stated occupancy or 100 whichever is less. Capitol Hill typically had about one thousand in attendance before COVID. It has had no virtual services during the pandemic, with Pastor Mark Dever arguing that “a video of a sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together and all the various means of God’s grace in that. I think it would be healthier to respect God’s strange providence in a period of abstinence from meeting together.” Capitol Hill has held some outdoor meetings but is looking for a larger venue to increase worshipper capacity where social distancing could be done but has run into legal obstacles.
Moreover, the lawyers for the plaintiff argued that the mayor and her officials have repeatedly ignored Phase 2 prohibitions with respect to mass gatherings, also protected by the First Amendment, while at the same time insisting on the compliance of houses of worship. She has either participated in these protests herself or permitted the protests to go forward unrestricted without strict adherence to the COVID restrictions. The suit also pointed out that neighboring states have fewer restrictions on churches, despite having a greater COVID impact.
Both Capitol Hill Baptist Church of D. C. and Grace Community Church of Los Angeles recognize the biblical mandate to meet for corporate worship. They may not be on the same page on how to do this and still honor God. Capitol Hill went on record opposing the civil disobedience position of Grace Community Church (also here) who continues to meet despite the threats of the civic officials and fines that may accrue. By filing this action, Capitol Hill effectively joins Grace Community Church in arguing for the believer’s right under the Constitution to meet. The vote of the church with a membership of about 850 to affirm the decision to file this legal action was apparently 402 to 35. Of course, it is too early to know just how far the church is prepared to carry its suit in the courts or what Capitol Hill will do if their litigation fails. Will they at some point feel the need to practice civil disobedience? It is hoped that the threat of COVID will soon come to an end although this does not seem to be on the horizon. With the American death count over 200,000 related to COVID, many Americans remain fearful of relaxing prohibitions, even if it means that churches are restricted or kept closed. These indeed are sad days when churches have to sue their government to receive the protection afforded them under the Constitution. We need to pray for God to intervene and we need to pray for our church leadership to have wisdom as they seek His will during these trying times.