Capitol Hill Baptist Church of Washington D. C. Joins the Constitutional Challenge

by | Sep 23, 2020 | The current crisis | 2 comments

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.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

2 Comments

  1. Pat Passig

    Interesting perspective. South Carolina is more conservative, and the churches have liberty to establish their own safety policies.

    Reply
  2. Don Johnson

    A little bizarre to refuse to provide any kind of broadcast or online meeting opportunities for their church. But that is not the point of your article!

    As to that, it really is a difficult situation. I think the civil disobedience approach of GCC has merit, but small churches would have a real hard time with it, especially if they incur fines. Jack Trieber finally backed down after massive fines. And even a lawsuit like this one would be challenging for the smaller churches… and incredibly slow. The suit likely won’t even make it into the courts for months.

    In any case, as this drags on, something will have to give. Churches can’t stay out forever. Maybe it will take a suit like this, or maybe someone will launch a class action suit which churches of all sizes could support.

    Reply

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