Capitol Hill Baptist Church, led by Mark Dever, wants to gather in the church as bodies and worship God. Government restrictions prohibited such gatherings, but permitted other embodied gatherings. The church worked patiently for an opening but chose to file a lawsuit, and the court ruled in its favor. We need to be careful. But this seems right and just according to law, and it seems also to me that many against the church are biased instead of thinking legally.
Enter Capitol Hill Baptist. Rarely have I seen a legal dispute follow the Micah 6:8 model more precisely. Love mercy? Before litigation, it proposed a plan of outdoor, fully masked services, with congregants socially distanced by family groups. It represented a kind of textbook best practices approach for events in the age of COVID.
Walk humbly? It did not immediately demand its way. Instead, it demonstrated great patience—first seeking a waiver from D.C. large-gathering restrictions in June and then again on September 1 when the city failed to respond. Only after the city rejected its second waiver request did the church file suit.
And did the church act justly? Yes. D.C.’s regulations are both indefinitely onerous and unfairly applied. For example, it currently permits unlimited outdoor seating for restaurants, yet restrictions even on outdoor worship services are set to remain until a vaccine (or effective therapeutics) are widely available.
Moreover, as the church pointed out, not only has the city permitted a series of massive protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing (arguably there was nothing it could have done to prevent such an immense spasm of public anger), city officials have actively facilitated the protests, coordinated with protest organizers, and even participated in the marches themselves.
I love how Capitol Hill Baptist phrased its argument: “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.”
Or, to put it more succinctly, “Free speech for thee and for me.”
Last night, federal district judge Trevor McFadden granted the church’s request for a preliminary injunction against D.C.’s guidelines. The outcome was legally correct—and a vindication of the church’s strategy—but the reasoning was important and should provide a guide for other courts deciding other cases as the pandemic drags on.