Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Muriel Bowser and District of Columbia

Item

Title

Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Muriel Bowser and District of Columbia

Description

Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a prominent Evangelical church in Washington, D.C., is suing Mayor Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia for its restrictions on religious gatherings. The lawsuit argues that D.C.'s restrictions on mass gatherings infringe on the church's First and Fifth Amendment rights and violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Court granted the Church's motion for injunctive relief.

Date Created

March 12, 2020
March 13, 2020
October 9, 2020
October 19, 2020

Community

Capitol Hill Baptist Church

Denomination

Baptist

State

District of Columbia

Place

Washington, D.C.

Genre

court filing
Tweets

Language

English

extracted text

Case 1:20-cv-02710 Document 1 Filed 09/22/20 Page 1 of 26

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
CAPITOL HILL BAPTIST CHURCH,
525 A Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Plaintiff,
v.
MURIEL BOWSER, in her official
capacity as Mayor of the District of
Columbia,
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004
DISTRICT OF
COLUMBIA,
c/o Karl A. Racine, Attorney General
400 6th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Defendants.

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Civil Action No.

1:20-cv-2710

PLAINTIFF’S ORIGINAL COMPLAINT
Plaintiff Capitol Hill Baptist Church (“CHBC” or the “Church”) brings this action to stop
Mayor Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia (collectively, “Defendants”) from violating
its rights under the First and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the
Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb, et seq., and alleges as
follows:
I. Preliminary Statement
1.

Since February 27, 1878, when the first 31 members of CHBC covenanted

together at the corner of 6th and A Streets, NE in the District of Columbia, the Church’s
members have gathered every Sunday for corporate worship a few blocks from this courthouse.
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2.

For CHBC, a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a

religious conviction for which there is no substitute. The Church does not offer virtual worship
services, it does not utilize a multi-site model, and it does not offer multiple Sunday morning
worship services.
3.

In March of this year, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an

executive order that, among other things, prohibited CHBC from gathering as one for in-person
worship, whether indoors or outdoors.
4.

Now, six months later, that ban on CHBC’s corporate worship gatherings remains

in effect in the District of Columbia. The Mayor’s orders prohibit gatherings of over 100 people
for purposes of worship, even if held outdoors and even if worshippers wear masks and practice
appropriate social distancing. Under the District’s four-stage plan, CHBC’s in-person worship
gatherings will be prohibited until scientists develop either a widely-available vaccine or an
effective therapy for COVID-19.
5.

In hopes of resuming its corporate worship gatherings in the District of Columbia,

CHBC filed an application with the Mayor’s Office on June 10, 2020, seeking a waiver from
Mayor Bowser’s prohibition on large gatherings. Despite the Church’s repeated outreach to the
Mayor’s Office, both directly and through its city councilman, and a resubmittal of the waiver
request on September 1, 2020, the District refused to rule on the Church’s application for months
before rejecting the application last week, leaving CHBC subject to the Mayor’s executive order,
the violation of which is punishable by civil and administrative penalties.
6.

Meanwhile, Defendants have been discriminatory in their application of the ban

on large scale gatherings. For example, on June 6, 2020, Mayor Bowser appeared personally at
an outdoor gathering of tens of thousands of people at the corner of 16th and H Streets, NW and

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delivered a speech describing the large gathering as “wonderful to see.” Similarly, on four
occasions between June and August 2020, the District’s Metropolitan Police Department closed
city streets to accommodate protests and marches of thousands to tens of thousands of people.
And only three weeks ago, the Mayor coordinated with organizers of the Commitment March on
Washington to “re-imagine” the five-hour event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for several
thousand people in attendance to hear an array of speakers.
7.

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. The First Amendment protects both mass
protests and religious worship. But Mayor Bowser, by her own admission, has preferred the
former over the latter. When asked why she celebrates mass protests while houses of worship
remain closed, she responded that “First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the
same” because “in the United States of America, people can protest.” In the United States of
America, people can gather for worship under the First Amendment as well.
8.

Faced with the District’s discriminatory treatment and with no end in sight to the

legal ban on worship gatherings, CHBC’s membership reluctantly voted to initiate this lawsuit to
reclaim their most fundamental of rights: the right to gather for corporate worship free from
threat of governmental sanction.
9.

The District’s now six-month ban on CHBC’s religious gatherings, even if held

outdoors with appropriate precautions, violates RFRA and the First and Fifth Amendments to the
United States Constitution.

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II. Parties
10.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church, founded in 1878, is a Christian church in

Washington, DC. It is incorporated in the District of Columbia and has a principal office located
at 525 A Street NE, Washington, DC 20002.
11.

Defendant Muriel Bowser is and was at all times relevant hereto the duly-elected

Mayor of the District of Columbia and as such was responsible for the promulgation and
implementation of the policies, procedures, and practices of the District of Columbia. She is
named as a defendant in this action in her official capacity as Mayor.
12.

Defendant District of Columbia is and was at all times relevant hereto a municipal

corporation and was and is responsible for the policies, procedures, and practices implemented
through its various agencies, agents, departments, and employees.
III. Jurisdiction and Venue
13.

The Court has subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 42 U.S.C.

§ 1983 because CHBC alleges an ongoing and imminent violation of its rights under the
Constitution of the United States and RFRA.
14.

The Court may declare the legal rights and obligations of the parties in this action

pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 because the action presents an actual controversy within the
Court’s jurisdiction.
15.

Venue is proper in this judicial district under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b). All

Defendants are residents of and/or perform their official duties in this district. In addition, a
substantial part of the events giving rise to the claims in this Complaint arose in this district
because the prohibition of CHBC’s services will be enforced in this district, because some or all

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of its members reside in this district, and because some or all of the actions of the Defendants
that are the subject of this Complaint occurred in this district.
IV. Facts
A. Plaintiff Capitol Hill Baptist Church
16.

CHBC is “an evangelical community of believers.” Capitol Hill Baptist Church,

About Us, https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/about-us/ (last accessed September 21, 2020).
17.

CHBC believes that if the Bible is the cornerstone of its church, “membership is

the cement” that holds the church together. Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Membership,
https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/connect/membership/ (last accessed September 21, 2020). As
of the date of the filing of this Complaint, CHBC has 853 members, 61% of whom live in the
District of Columbia.
18.

On a typical Sunday prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, CHBC had

approximately 1,000 people attend its Sunday morning worship service.
19.

Dr. Mark Dever has served as the senior pastor of CHBC since 1994. Capitol Hill

Baptist Church, Leadership & Staff: Mark Dever, https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/aboutus/leadership-staff/member/1267131/ (last accessed September 21, 2020). Dr. Dever holds a
number of advanced degrees, including a doctorate in ecclesiastical history from Cambridge
University. Dr. Dever has written and spoken extensively on the theological significance of a
church’s weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation.
B. The Significance of Gathering
20.

For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have gathered each Sunday throughout the year

in observance of Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week, and the
physical gathering of the church is central to that celebration. Indeed, the Greek word translated

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as “church” in our English versions of the Christian scriptures is “ekklesia,” which literally
means “assembly.” A.T. Robertson, A GRAMMAR OF THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT IN THE LIGHT
OF HISTORICAL RESEARCH

21.

(3d ed. 1919).

As with other communities of Christian faith around the country, CHBC believes

that a central part of following Christ is worshipping together in the same physical space. This
belief derives, in part, from the exhortation found in the Christian scriptures that believers “not
forsak[e] the assembling of ourselves together.” Hebrews 10:25 (KJV).
22.

CHBC has a church covenant, which is a statement of how the church agrees to

live as a church. See Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Church Covenant,
https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/about-us/what-we-believe/church-covenant/ (last accessed
September 21, 2020). The church covenant is reaffirmed at all members’ meetings and before
taking communion. In the church covenant, CHBC members agree, consistent with Scripture,
that they “will not forsake the assembling of [them]selves together.” Id.
23.

For CHBC, having more than one gathering or assembly means that a local

church ceases to be one church. For instance, in his 2012 book The Church: The Gospel Made
Visible, Dr. Dever stated that a “biblically ordered church regularly gathers the whole
congregation” because “without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically ordered
church.” Id. at 135 (emphasis added).
24.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, CHBC’s leaders had made a convictional choice

not to hold multiple services, instead capping attendance at the capacity of its auditorium. After
the COVID-19 outbreak, on March 13, 2020, Dr. Dever decided not to live stream sermons for his
congregation during the COVID-19 pandemic because “a video of a sermon is not a substitute for

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a covenanted congregation assembling together.” See
https://twitter.com/MarkDever/status/1238527208702050306.
25.

CHBC thus has a sincerely held religious belief that the physical, corporate

gathering of its entire congregation each Sunday is a central element of religious worship
commanded by the Lord. CHBC desires to gather for a physical, corporate gathering of believers
in the District of Columbia on Sunday, September 27, 2020, and on subsequent Sundays, and
would do so but for those actions of the Defendants that are the subject of this Complaint.
C. Prohibitions of Mass Gatherings
26.

On March 11, 2020, Defendant Muriel Bowser, in her official capacity as the

Mayor of the District of Columbia, issued both Mayor’s Order 2020-045 (declaring a public
emergency) and Mayor’s Order 2020-046 (declaring a public health emergency) due to the
COVID-19 outbreak.
27.

As COVID-19 spread across the country, on March 24, 2020, Mayor Bowser

issued Mayor’s Order 2020-053, which mandated the closure of all non-essential businesses and
prohibited all “large gatherings.” The Order defined “large gatherings” as “any event or
convening … that bring together or are likely to bring together ten (10) or more persons at the
same time in a single room or other single confined or enclosed space.” The prohibition on large
gatherings also included all events or activities with ten or more persons in confined outdoor
spaces.
28.

While the Mayor’s March 24th Order itself did not specifically mention churches,

temples, mosques, synagogues, or other houses of worship—and thus did not expressly close
them—it did by implication. As the “Additional Information” contained on the District’s

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COVID-19 website made clear, churches were not considered an “essential” entity by the
District and were prohibited from performing worship services under the Order:
Q: Did the Mayor close churches?
No, but large gatherings of ten or more people are prohibited, so as a practical
matter, most churches are not holding services. Weddings and funerals may only
be 10 or fewer people. Houses of worship can maintain basic business operations,
and many open their doors to people who walk in who want a quiet place to
pray alone. Many congregations are also maintaining their social service
programs to deliver essential items like food to people who are at home or
helping others get to medical appointments.
29.

Mayor’s Order 2020-053 also provided that “[a]ny individual or entity that

knowingly” violated the Order would be “subject to all civil, criminal, and administrative
penalties authorized by law, including sanctions or penalties for violating D.C. Official Code
§ 7-2307, including civil fines, summary suspension or revocation of licensure.”
30.

Six days later, on March 30, 2020, Mayor Bowser issued a Stay at Home Order,

directing “[a]ll individuals living in Washington, DC … to stay at their place of residence, except
as specified in this Order.” The Stay at Home Order exempted travel to essential businesses, as
well as to non-essential businesses to maintain minimum business operations. It also exempted
“essential travel,” which did include “[t]ravel required to visit a house of worship.” However, as
the “Frequently Asked Questions on Stay at Home Order” published on the District’s official
COVID-19 website made clear, “large gatherings of ten or more people are prohibited, so as a
practical matter, most churches are not holding services.”
31.

After multiple extensions of the Stay at Home Order, on May 27, 2020, the Mayor

issued the District’s Phase One reopening order, in which “certain activities—where the risk of
transmission has been determined to be low and when strong safeguards are in place—are being
allowed to restart.” While the Stay at Home Order’s prohibition on travel was lifted under Phase

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One, “[l]arge gatherings of more than ten (10) individuals continue[d] to be prohibited in the
District, with the same caveats and exceptions set forth in prior Orders.”
32.

The Phase One order also exempted new types of gatherings, however. For

instance, barbershops and hair salons were allowed to operate with no cap on the number of
people allowed in a building or room so long as there was no more than one customer per stylist
and customers maintained six feet separation from each other. Outdoor dining at licensed
establishments was also allowed, as was going to a farmers’ market, park, dog park, tennis court,
or track, all with no limit on the number of persons. The only limits were that individual groups
of persons had to consist of ten or fewer (though multiple groups of ten persons could be in the
park or field, etc.), and social distancing guidelines of six feet between groups needed to be
maintained.
33.

Notably, in Phase One, the District allowed “streateries” and other outdoor

restaurants to operate with no limit on the number of people they could serve, other than what
social distancing required and in accordance with Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration
guidelines. None of these entities were subject to the Mayor’s large gathering prohibition. And
even the social distancing guidelines were different for outdoor restaurants than they were for
other entities: the “physical distancing and safeguard measures … generally include minimum
buffers of 4 and 6 feet between pedestrians/customers and seating area/tables,” as opposed to six
feet between persons or groups in non-exempted buildings. As of September 11th, there are 583
Streatery registrations, which includes 439 alcohol licensees, 55 restaurants without alcohol, 20
retailers, and 69 community organization requests.
34.

Under the Phase One Order, the Mayor did not remove the prohibition on

gatherings of ten or more persons, indoors or outdoors, with regard to houses of worship.

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Instead, they remained under threat of “civil and administrative penalties authorized by law,
including sanctions or penalties for violating D.C. Official Code § 7-2307, including civil fines
or summary suspension or revocation of licenses.”
35.

Effective June 22, 2020, the Mayor announced Phase Two of the District’s

reopening via Mayor’s Order 2020-075. Phase Two repealed the large gathering prohibition in
place since March 24th and replaced it with a prohibition on mass gatherings of over fifty
persons, subject to exceptions. One of these new exceptions was for indoor dining. In Phase
Two, licensed restaurants could now open indoor seating at 50% capacity, while outdoor dining
had no capacity restrictions, subject only to distancing guidelines. Other new exceptions in
Phase Two included:


Gyms and other fitness facilities opened, with no maximum capacity limit, subject only to
a capacity requirement of five people per 1,000 square feet of space.



Childcare centers could resume operations with the same staff/child ratios as prior to the
COVID-19 pandemic. While the number of children allowed to be grouped in one room
indoors was limited to 10-11 people (11 with a second staff member), there is no limit on
the total amount of persons allowed in a childcare building. For outdoor activities, groups
of 10-11 may run and play together, with no limit on the total number of groups that may
be in an outdoor area, other than requiring groups to stand greater than six feet apart.



Summer camps have similar group restrictions as childcare facilities, but they are allowed
to have groups of 12-13, and again, have no limits on the total number of groups that may
be inside a building or in an outdoor space, other than requiring separate groups to socially
distance from each other.

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36.

By contrast, in Phase Two, “[p]laces of worship are encouraged to continue

providing virtual services as everyone is safer at home. Participation limited to virtual
worship services is especially recommended for older adults and people of all ages with
chronic medical conditions who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.”
Houses of worship, which have a constitutional right to gather, are the only entity expressly
encouraged to continue meeting virtually in Phase Two.
37.

In addition to officially and expressly encouraging congregants to not meet in-

person and exercise their constitutional rights to worship in-person as a corporate body,
Defendants also subjected places of worship to a capacity restriction of “fifty percent (50%) of
the capacity of the facility or space where the service is occurring as set forth in its Certificate of
Occupancy, or one hundred (100) persons, whichever is fewer. Groups of persons attending
together must not exceed ten (10) persons. Each group must be seated at least six (6) feet from
each other group.” Importantly “[t]hese limits apply to indoor and outdoor services.”
38.

Violators of Mayor’s Order 2020-075 are “subject to civil and administrative

penalties authorized by law, including sanctions or penalties for violating D.C. Official Code
§ 7-2307, including civil fines or summary suspension or revocation of licenses.”
39.

The public emergency and public health emergency declared by Mayor Bowser in

March 2020 have been extended several times. Most recently, Mayor’s Order 2020-079, issued
on July 22, 2020, extended the states of emergency from July 24, 2020 to October 9, 2020.
40.

As of the date of the filing of this Complaint, the District remains in Phase Two of

reopening. Mayor Bowser has said that there is no timetable for the District to enter the third
phase of its reopening plan; her latest suggestion is that it would not occur until children are back
in school (which is tentatively scheduled for November).

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41.

Even in Phase Three, however, houses of worship would be capped at 250

attendees according to recommendations from the ReOpen DC Advisory Group, a group
constituted by Mayor Bowser to provide recommendations for reopening that can then be
operationalized by Defendants.
42.

According to the current ReOpen DC recommendations, the 250-attendee limit

would only be lifted during Phase Four, which would require an effective COVID-19 vaccine or
therapy.
D. Mass Protests
43.

From May 29, 2020 to June 22, 2020, the District of Columbia was in Phase One

of reopening during which large gatherings of more than ten individuals were prohibited, subject
to certain exceptions. Mass protests were not such an exception.
44.

On Saturday, June 6, 2020, however, tens of thousands of people gathered for a

mass protest in and around 16th and H Streets, NW in the District.
45.

Mayor Bowser attended the mass protest and said to the thousands in attendance,

“It’s so wonderful to see everyone peacefully protesting, wearing their masks.”
46.

Defendants further facilitated the June 6 mass protest by closing dozens of city

streets to vehicular traffic on that day in order to accommodate the “First Amendment
demonstrations.”
47.

On information and belief, Defendants appropriately recognized First Amendment

rights and did not cite a single participant in the June 6 mass protest for a violation of the Phase
One prohibition on large gatherings.
48.

On Sunday, June 7, 2020, thousands of protesters again converged in the District

for a mass protest. This protest included a march of several hundred people from Southeast

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Washington along a closed-down street leading to the White House with an escort of police on
motorcycles. The march began with a Christian invocation and prayer for forgiveness by David
Platt, pastor of one of the nation’s largest and most high-profile evangelical churches, McLean
Bible Church. As the march proceeded, participants sang, prayed, and banged tambourines. The
march proceeded to the reflecting pool on the west side of the Capitol building, where the
participants gathered in close proximity for an hour to hear from a variety of speakers.
49.

On information and belief, Defendants appropriately recognized First Amendment

rights and did not cite a single participant in the June 7 mass protest for a violation of the Phase
One prohibition on large gatherings.
50.

On Sunday, June 14, 2020, thousands of protesters participated in a mass protest

at 16th and H Streets, NW. This protest took the form of a religious ceremony, with thousands
of worshipers praying, protesting, kneeling and dancing on the street. The Washington Post
described the event as transforming the area “into a church” and as “a kaleidoscope of prayers,
chants, singing and preaching from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian faith leaders who
joined in a multifaith effort to bless the protest movement.” At this mass protest, people bunched
up in places.
51.

Defendants endorsed and facilitated the June 14 mass protests by closing dozens

of city streets to vehicular traffic in order to accommodate the First Amendment demonstrations.
52.

On information and belief, Defendants appropriately recognized First Amendment

rights and did not cite a single participant in the June 14 mass protest for a violation of the Phase
One prohibition on mass gatherings.
53.

On June 19-21, 2020, many mass protests coinciding with Juneteenth took place

throughout the District of Columbia. One of the protests on June 19 was a march organized by

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the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics professional basketball teams, attended by a
crowd of thousands. At another June 19 Juneteenth mass protest, hundreds of people marched
from Freedom Plaza to the United States Department of Education. The mass protests continued
on Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21, including a convention of hundreds on the National
Mall.
54.

Defendants endorsed and facilitated the Juneteenth mass protests by closing

dozens of city streets to vehicular traffic on those three days in order to accommodate the First
Amendment demonstrations.
55.

On information and belief, Defendants appropriately recognized First Amendment

rights and did not cite a single participant in the Juneteenth mass protests for a violation of the
Phase One prohibition on large gatherings.
56.

Since June 22, 2020, the District of Columbia has been subject to Defendants’

Phase Two restrictions, which prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people. On July 31, 2020,
however, Mayor Bowser issued guidance for persons planning to attend the Commitment March,
an August 28, 2020 mass gathering of well in excess of 50 people. Mayor Bowser’s guidance
did not reference Defendants’ Phase Two restrictions on mass gatherings or indicate that the
Commitment March would be subject to these restrictions.
57.

On August 17, 2020, Mayor Bowser announced that the Commitment March had

been “re-imagined” and that the march would take the form of “a seated event where the number
of seats would be limited, people would be checked going into the seated area.”
58.

On August 28, 2020, thousands of protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to

participate in the Commitment March, which lasted approximately five hours.

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59.

Defendants further endorsed and facilitated the Commitment March by

announcing that dozens of city streets would close to vehicular traffic to accommodate the event.
60.

On information and belief, Defendants appropriately recognized First Amendment

rights and did not cite a single participant in the Commitment March for a violation of the Phase
Two prohibition on mass gatherings.
E. CHBC’s Attempts to Meet in the District
61.

On June 10, 2020, CHBC submitted a request to the District of Columbia for a

waiver from Defendants’ restrictions on large gatherings. The request noted that, based on
CHBC’s “theological convictions,” its “ability to meet together in person as a church is of the
essence of what it means to be a church.” It also stated that, for all practical purposes, “if a
church cannot meet in an assembly it does not exist.” It explained that “since the Mayor first
requested that churches cease holding services, it has been [CHBC’s] theological judgment not to
hold any services—online or in person—nor have we been able to perform the Christian
ordinances of baptism or communion.” This has been, the request concluded, “a substantial
burden on” CHBC’s congregation, “most of whom live in the District of Columbia.” The
request asked for “a waiver so that [CHBC] can meet outside of a building in a manner
consistent with the current guidance applicable to outdoor restaurants.” In the request, CHBC
pledged to “ensure that each household is distanced by at least six feet” and “instruct all
individuals above the age of ten years to wear masks for the duration of the service.”
62.

During the course of June, Jamie Dunlop, a pastor at CHBC, had multiple

conversations with Thomas Bowen in Mayor Bowser’s Office of Religious Affairs.
63.

After several months passed and CHBC had not received a response on its waiver

request (or any other communication from the Mayor’s Office), CHBC submitted an updated

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request on September 1, 2020. The updated request noted that CHBC had been told that it could
use an outdoor space near RFK Stadium that “would very comfortably accommodate” its
congregation, but only if CHBC had a waiver from the District of Columbia government. The
request again asked for “a waiver so that [CHBC] can meet outdoors in a manner consistent with
the current guidance applicable to outdoor service at restaurants.” CHBC pledged to “ensure that
each household is distanced by at least six feet” and “instruct all individuals without medical
exemptions above the age of two years to wear masks for the duration of the service.”
64.

On September 2, 2020, Pastor Dunlop from CHBC contacted Nichole Opkins

from Councilmember Charles Allen’s office, informing her that CHBC had never received a
reply to its June 10 waiver application and that CHBC had submitted an updated request the day
before.
65.

On September 15, 2020, the District of Columbia rejected CHBC’s request for a

waiver. The denial letter thanked CHBC for providing information about its “social distancing
plan, and other measures to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID-19.” Noting that the Phase
Two Order’s capacity limits for places of worship were “double the District’s current prohibition
on mass gatherings of more than fifty (50) persons,” the letter stated that “[w]aivers for places of
worship above that expanded capacity are not being granted at this time.” To the extent CHBC’s
request was to operate above those gathering limits, the letter concluded, its request “is denied.”
66.

Meanwhile, on June 27, 2020, the District of Columbia granted a waiver request

for a different type of expressive gathering protected by the First Amendment. Earlier in June,
two local companies had requested a waiver to operate a pop-up drive-in movie theater at RFK
Stadium in a desire “to bring people together in D.C.” The D.C. Homeland Security and

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Emergency Management Agency approved the waiver request, allowing the drive-in gathering to
hold up to 350 socially distanced vehicles.
67.

The District of Columbia Department of Health has been tracking and reporting

the incidence of COVID-19 infections in the District. According to the Department of Health
website, the District has experienced 334 new cases of COVID-19 in the last week, out of a city
with a population of over 705,000. The District also has reported hitting its reopening goals for
ability to contact trace new cases, ability to contact trace close contacts, sustained low positivity
rate, sustained low transmission rate, and utilization of hospitals.
68.

Despite the reduced presence of COVID-19 in its community, CHBC remains

committed to emphasizing safety in its gatherings with social distancing precautions in order to
ensure the safety and well-being of its congregants. Specifically, CHBC will consider health
officials’ recommended precautions in the conduct of its services.
69.

These precautions will provide strong protection for the health of the church

community and others by preventing contact and ensuring against the transmission of disease
through the service.
V. First Cause of Action
The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
70.

Paragraphs 1 through 69 are hereby incorporated as if set forth fully herein.

71.

The First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits governmental action

“abridging the freedom of speech.” The Free Speech Clause applies “with equal vigor” to the
District of Columbia. Espresso, Inc. v. Dist. of Columbia, 884 F. Supp. 7, 9 (D.D.C. 1995).
72.

Under that Clause, a government, including a municipal government, “has no

power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”
Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., 576 U.S. 155, 163 (2015). CHBC’s religious worship gatherings
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are quintessential protected expression. See, e.g., Good News Club v. Milford Central School,
533 U.S. 98 (2001) (recognizing that forum restriction on an organization that taught Bible
verses to children via stories, games, and prayer was a restriction on the freedom of speech).
73.

Defendants’ selective enforcement of its rules against mass gatherings has created

a de facto exemption for mass protests. The existence of a de facto exemption is further
evidenced by Mayor Bowser’s encouragement of (and participation in) the protests while
discouraging others from violating the mass gathering limitations.
74.

An exemption even from a permissible regulation of speech diminishes the

credibility of the government’s rationale for restricting speech in the first place. See City of
Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 51-53 (1994). When a law or policy is selectively enforced or
subject to exceptions, it suggests that content discrimination is afoot. Id. at 52.
75.

A content-based exemption from a ban is no less a content-based distinction

because it is phrased as exempting certain speech from a ban rather than as imposing the
restriction only on the burdened class of speech. See City of Ladue, 512 U.S. at 48-53; City of
Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, Inc., 507 U.S. 410, 429 (1993).
76.

Content-based restrictions “are presumptively unconstitutional and may be

justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state
interests.” Reed, 576 U.S. at 163.
77.

Defendants’ actions are not “narrowly tailored” because they burden substantially

more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests. See McCullen v.
Coakley, 573 U.S. 464, 486 (2014). CHBC is willing to follow social distancing and other
hygiene requirements, yet Defendants forbid CHBC from holding services with more than 100
attendees even though they allow far larger mass protests. In other words, Defendants have

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shown they can accomplish their interest in more narrow ways than outright forbidding religious
gatherings of greater than 100 attendees.
78.

Creating an exception for mass protests and not other types of First Amendment

activities is constitutionally forbidden content-based discrimination and thus violates CHBC’s
free speech rights. See Members of City Council of City of L.A. v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466
U.S. 789, 816 (1984).
VI. Second Cause of Action
The Freedom of Assembly Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
79.

Paragraphs 1 through 78 are hereby incorporated as if set forth fully herein.

80.

The First Amendment of the Constitution protects the “right of the people

peaceably to assemble.”
81.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment’s freedom of

assembly includes religious assemblies. See NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 460-62 (1958).
“Joining a lawful organization, like attending a church, is an associational activity that comes
within the purview of the First Amendment …. ‘Peaceably to assemble’ as used in the First
Amendment necessarily involves a coming together, whether regularly or spasmodically.”
Gibson v. Fla. Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 562 (1963) (Douglas, J.,
concurring) (noting that while, historically, the right to assembly was considered part of the right
to petition the government for a redress of grievances, the right to assembly has since become
“equally fundamental” with the right to free speech and thus applies to “attending a church”).
82.

“The right of free speech, the right to teach, and the right of assembly are, of

course, fundamental rights.” Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 373 (1927). When a
government practice restricts fundamental rights, it is subject to “strict scrutiny” and can be
justified only if it furthers a compelling government purpose and, even then, only if no less
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restrictive alternative is available. See, e.g., San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S.
1, 16-17 (1973); Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972).
83.

By denying Plaintiff the ability to assemble via an in-person church service in

numbers greater than 100, whether indoors or outdoors, Defendants are in violation of the
Freedom of Assembly Clause. Defendants cannot meet the no-less-restrictive-alternative test.
Social distancing precautions are appropriate to limit the spread of COVID-19. Imposing morerestrictive requirements that target only churches and their services is not the least restrictive
means of achieving Defendants’ public safety goal.
84.

Requiring Plaintiff to abstain from its religious gatherings, despite substantial

modifications to satisfy the public health interests at stake, violates Plaintiff’s constitutional right
peaceably to assemble.
VII. Third Cause of Action
Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1.
85.

Paragraphs 1 through 84 are hereby incorporated as if set forth fully herein.

86.

RFRA states that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise

of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government
“demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling
governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling
governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1; Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S.
682, 705 (2014).
87.

RFRA’s “compelling interest test” is a form of strict scrutiny that “requires the

Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of
the challenged law ‘to the person’—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is

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being substantially burdened.” Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal,
546 U.S. 418, 430-31 (2006).
88.

The District of Columbia, as an enclave of the federal government, is a “covered

entity” under RFRA. 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-2(2).
89.

In order to make the required “demonstrat[ion]” to justify a burden of religion,

Defendants must satisfy both the evidentiary and persuasive burden. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb-2(3).
90.

RFRA broadly defines the “exercise of religion” to include “any exercise of

religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000bb–2(4) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–5). In Hobby Lobby, the United States Supreme
Court stated that the exercise of religion involves “not only belief and profession but the
performance of (or abstention from) physical acts that are engaged in for religious reason.” 573
U.S. at 710 (citing Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 877 (1990)).
91.

Gathering as one church in a single worship service is an essential component of

Plaintiff’s exercise of religion.
92.

A compelling interest includes “only those interests of the highest order.”

Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215 (1972). And the least-restrictive-means standard is
“exceptionally demanding.” Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. at 728. To pass the least-restrictive-means
test, the government must show “that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without
imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion” by the religious objector. Id.
93.

By denying Plaintiff the ability to hold an in-person church service, Defendants

are in violation of RFRA.
94.

Defendants cannot meet the least-restrictive-means test. Social distancing

precautions are appropriate to limit the spread of COVID-19. Imposing more-restrictive

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requirements that target only churches and their services, and not similar mass gatherings, is not
the least restrictive means of achieving Defendants’ public safety goal. Defendants employ
substantially less restrictive means to regulate mass protests, which register attendance figures
far greater than those permitted at church services.
VIII. Fourth Cause of Action
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
95.

Paragraphs 1 through 94 are hereby incorporated as if set forth fully herein.

96.

The First Amendment of the Constitution protects the “free exercise” of religion.

Fundamental to this protection is the right to gather and worship. See W. Va. State Bd. of Educ.
v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943) (“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw
certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of
majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts . . .
[such as the] freedom of worship and assembly.”).
97.

As the Supreme Court has noted, “[a] law burdening religious practice that is not

neutral or not of general application must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny.” Church of the
Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 546 (1993).
98.

Gathering as one church in a single worship service is an essential component of

Plaintiff’s exercise of religion.
99.

Defendants prohibit in-person religious services of greater than 100 people, under

penalty of law, and have thus substantially burdened Plaintiff’s religious exercise.
100.

“[T]he minimum requirement of neutrality is that a law not discriminate on its

face.” Id. at 533.
101.

Defendants’ restrictions have specifically and explicitly targeted in-person

religious gatherings and are thus not neutral on their face.
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102.

Relatedly, government action is not generally-applicable if its prohibitions

substantially under-include non-religiously motivated conduct that might endanger the same
governmental interest that the law is designed to protect. Id. at 542–46.
103.

Defendants’ prohibition of in-person church services in excess of 100 people is

not generally-applicable. There are numerous business organizations and other entities that
Defendants are not cracking down on where far more people come into closer contact with less
oversight. Moreover, Defendants systematically permit and endorse much larger gatherings,
numbering in the tens of thousands, for the purposes of mass protests.
104.

Laws and government actions that burden religious practice and are either not

neutral or not generally-applicable must satisfy a compelling governmental interest and be
narrowly tailored to achieve that end. See id. at 546.
105.

Defendants’ mandate is not “narrowly tailored” because the ban on in-person

gatherings in excess of 100 people for religious services is absolute, not accounting for services,
like Plaintiff’s, where social distancing precautions are carefully adhered to, and thus satisfy the
public health concerns to which the guidelines are directed.
106.

Requiring Plaintiff to abstain from its religious gatherings, despite substantial

modifications to satisfy the public health interests at stake, violates Plaintiff’s constitutional right
to free exercise of its religion.
IX. Fifth Cause of Action
The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
107.

Paragraphs 1 through 106 are hereby incorporated as if set forth fully herein.

108.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits governmental deprivation of

“life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” “The liberty protected by the Fifth
Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any
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person the equal protection of the laws.” United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744, 774 (2013).
This Fifth Amendment protection applies with full force to the District of Columbia. See Bolling
v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954).
109.

To establish an equal protection claim under the Fifth Amendment, the plaintiff

must plead and prove that the defendant acted with discriminatory purpose on account of race,
religion, or national origin. See Anderson v. Holder, 691 F. Supp. 2d 57, 61-62 (D.D.C. 2010)
(citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009)).
110.

Mayor Bowser has acknowledged that her selective enforcement of the mass

gathering restrictions is motivated by a discriminatory purpose. As she admitted in an MSNBC
interview, the discriminatory enforcement of her ban on large gatherings is based on her
preference for social “protest” over religious worship, and she mistakenly asserts that the
Constitution supports her content-based bias.
111.

Similarly, the District of Columbia, in rejecting Plaintiff’s application for a

waiver, responded that it was not considering waivers “for places of worship.” The District did
not claim that it is categorically denying waiver requests for all mass gatherings regardless of
expressive purpose; that categorical denial applies only to churches. Defendants have thus
explicitly tied their denial of Plaintiff’s waiver to the expressive content of the gathering, rather
than the circumstances under which it is conducted.
112.

Defendants’ intentional differential treatment of places of worship from other

similarly situated individuals and entities has denied Plaintiff equal protection of the laws,
violating Plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process.
X. Prayer for Relief
WHEREFORE, Plaintiff requests this Court enter an order:

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Case 1:20-cv-02710 Document 1 Filed 09/22/20 Page 25 of 26

a.

Declaring that Defendants have unlawfully burdened Plaintiff’s free speech rights,
in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution;

b.

Declaring that Defendants have unlawfully burdened Plaintiff’s right to peaceably
assemble, in violation of the Freedom of Assembly Clause of the First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution;

c.

Declaring that Defendants have unlawfully burdened Plaintiff’s religious free
exercise rights, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000bb, et seq.;

d.

Declaring that Defendants have unlawfully burdened Plaintiff’s religious free
exercise rights, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution;

e.

Declaring that Defendants have denied Plaintiff equal protection of the laws, in
violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution;

f.

Entering a temporary restraining order, preliminarily enjoining, and permanently
enjoining Defendants from prohibiting Plaintiff from physically gathering as a
congregation in the District of Columbia if conducted with appropriate social
distancing practices;

g.

Awarding Plaintiff costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses; and

h.

Granting Plaintiff all such other and further relief as the Court deems just and
proper.

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Case 1:20-cv-02710 Document 1 Filed 09/22/20 Page 26 of 26

Dated: September 22, 2020

Respectfully submitted,
/s/ Matthew T. Martens
Matthew T. Martens (D.C. Bar No. 1019099)
Kevin Gallagher (D.C. Bar No. 1031415)*
Matthew E. Vigeant (D.C. Bar. No. 144722)*
Andrew Miller (D.C. Bar No. 1644997)*
WILMER CUTLER PICKERING HALE AND
DORR LLP
1875 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20006
Tel: (202) 663-6000
Fax: (202) 663-6363
Matthew.Martens@wilmerhale.com
*admission application pending
Kevin Palmer (pro hac vice forthcoming)
WILMER CUTLER PICKERING HALE AND
DORR LLP
60 State Street
Boston, MA 02109
Tel: (617) 526-6000
Fax: (617) 526-5000
Kevin.Palmer@wilmerhale.com
Hiram S. Sasser, III (pro hac vice forthcoming)
FIRST LIBERTY INSTITUTE
2001 W. Plano Pkwy., Ste. 1600
Plano, Texas 75075
Tel: (972) 941-4444
Fax: (972) 941-4457
hsasser@firstliberty.org
Attorneys for Capitol Hill Baptist Church

- 26 -
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

CAPITOL HILL BAPTIST CHURCH,
Plaintiff,
v.

Case No. 20-cv-02710 (TNM)

MURIEL BOWSER,
In her official capacity as Mayor of the
District of Columbia,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA,
Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION
Capitol Hill Baptist Church (“the Church”) has opened its doors for a weekly worship
service for 142 years—until now. Its doors closed in March, on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s
COVID-19-related orders. At first, the Church accepted these restrictions willingly. But as the
months passed by and the Mayor lifted other restrictions and welcomed mass protests to the city,
the Church sought permission to hold its weekly service outdoors, with congregants masked and
socially distanced. The District denied permission because the Church’s doctrinal requirement
of a weekly gathering of its entire congregation together conflicts with the Mayor’s prohibition
on religious gatherings of more than 100 people, indoors or out.
The Church sues the Mayor and the District of Columbia (collectively, the “District”),
arguing that their actions violate, among other laws, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
(“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb. Before the Court is the Church’s motion for an expedited
preliminary injunction. It seeks to enjoin the District from enforcing its restrictions insofar as
they prevent the Church from holding socially-distanced outdoor worship services in which
1

congregants wear masks.
The Court determines that the Church is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s
actions violate RFRA. The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s
exercise of religion. More, the District has failed to offer evidence at this stage showing that it
has a compelling interest in preventing the Church from meeting outdoors with appropriate
precautions, or that this prohibition is the least-restrictive means to achieve its interest. The
Court will therefore grant the Church’s motion for injunctive relief.
I.
The Church first met on Capitol Hill in 1878. Mem. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. For Prelim.
Inj. (“Pl.’s Mot.”) at 7, ECF No. 3-1. 1 And except for a three-week hiatus during the peak of the
Spanish flu in 1918, its members have continued to gather weekly, in person, ever since. Id.
Although the Church started with 31 members, id., today it has 853—most of whom live in the
city, Decl. of Jaime Dunlop (“Dunlop Decl.”) at 1–2, ECF No. 5. Prior to the onset of COVID19, around 1,000 people attended the Church’s Sunday services. Id. at 1. Unlike many other
religious entities, the Church “does not offer virtual worship services, it does not utilize a multisite model, and it does not offer multiple Sunday morning worship services.” Id. at 2. To the
Church, “a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious
conviction for which there is no substitute.” Pl.’s Mot. at 7.
The Church, like similar entities, has not escaped the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It halted its regular services in March 2020, when Mayor Bowser declared a public-health
emergency. Dunlop Decl. at 2; Defs.’ Opp. to Pl.’s Mot. for Prelim. Inj. (“Defs.’ Opp.”) at 15,
ECF No. 15. The District, like state and local governments around the country, has imposed
1

All citations are to the page numbers generated by this Court’s CM/ECF system.

2

restrictions in response to COVID-19. Shortly after declaring a state of emergency, see Decl. of
Matthew T. Martens (“Martens Decl.”) Ex. 5 (“Mayor’s Order 2020-045”), ECF No. 4-5;
Martens Decl. Ex. 6, ECF No. 4-6 (“Mayor’s Order 2020-046”), the District prohibited “large
gatherings”—defined to include events with ten or more persons in an indoor or outdoor space,
Martens Decl. Ex. 7 (“Mayor’s Order 2020-053”) at 4, 8, ECF No. 4-7; Defs.’ Opp. at 17.
On May 27, the District began Phase One of a four-phase reopening plan, in which
gatherings of more than ten people were prohibited. Martens Decl. Ex. 11 (“Mayor’s Order
2020-067”) at 3–4, ECF No. 4-11; Defs’ Opp. at 18. Phase Two began on June 22 and remains
in effect. Martens Decl. Ex. 16 (“Mayor’s Order 2020-075”) at 3, ECF No. 4-16; Pl.’s Mot. at
15; Defs.’ Opp. at 19. 2 In this phase, restaurants may have up to 50 percent capacity indoors, but
have no limit on the number of patrons that they may seat outdoors. Mayor’s Order 2020-075 at
5–6. The restrictions on gatherings loosened, permitting gatherings of up to 50 people. Id. at 3.
“Places of worship are encouraged to continue providing virtual services”; if they meet in
person, they may “operate with expanded capacity limits”— the fewer of 50 percent capacity or
100 persons. Id. at 7; Martens Decl. Ex. 22 (“Phase Two Guidance for Places of Worship”) at 2,
ECF No. 4-22. These limits are the same whether the gathering takes place indoors or outside.
Phase Two Guidance for Places of Worship at 2.
Those who “knowingly violate[]” the District’s restrictions “may be subject to civil and
administrative penalties authorized by law, including sanctions or penalties for violating D.C.
Code § 7-2307, including civil fines or summary suspension or revocation of licenses.” Mayor’s
2

The District informed the Court that the Mayor issued a new order on October 7, 2020, which
extended the public emergency and public-health emergency through December 31, 2020, and
made some changes to Phase Two restrictions. Defs.’ Notice of Suppl. Authority at 2–4, ECF
No. 36-1. The order does not appear to otherwise affect the prohibitions that the Church
challenges or the associated penalties. Id. at 4.

3

Order 2020-075 at 12; see also D.C. Code § 7-2307 (allowing the Mayor to, among other things,
“provide for a fine of not more than $1,000 for each violation” of emergency executive orders).
It is unclear when the District plans to move to Phase Three—which would, according to the
ReOpen DC Advisory Group’s recommendation, limit houses of worship to 250 congregants,
Martens Decl. Ex. 28 at 2, 20, ECF No. 4-28. Limits on the number of congregants would cease
in Phase Four, which will be triggered by a vaccine or other widely-administrable cure. Id. at 20,
25.
Amid COVID-19’s arrival and the District’s associated restrictions, a wave of protests
swept the country beginning in late spring, and Washington, D.C. saw gatherings by the
thousands. Pl.’s Mot. at 17–20. The Church argues that the District has treated mass protests
more favorably than religious services by not enforcing its capacity restrictions on gatherings
against protestors. Id. at 20. Specifically, it contends that the District has supported these large
gatherings as evidenced by, among other things, Mayor Bowser’s attendance at a protest on June
6, 2020. See, e.g., id. at 17–20. 3 The District disputes its control over mass protests on federal
land; it also maintains that religious services pose a greater risk of infection than protests, and
that no spike in COVID-19 cases or deaths resulted from these large gatherings. Hr’g Tr. at 43–
44.
Around the same time as some of these protests, the Church petitioned the District for a
waiver so that it could resume meeting as an entire congregation. Dunlop Decl. Ex. 5 (“June
Request”) at 2, ECF No. 5-5. While some D.C. congregations have voluntarily cancelled their

See also Pl.’s Reply Br. in Supp. of Mot. for Prelim. Inj. (“Pl.’s Reply Br.”) at 11 & n.7;
WUSA9, DC Mayor Bowser attends Justice For George Floyd protest at Black Lives Matter
Plaza, YouTube.com (June 6, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVyhydp1lU&feature=youtu.be.

3

4

services or moved to virtual platforms, see, e.g., Defs.’ Opp. at 20–21, the Church explained that,
“[b]ased on [its] theological convictions, [its] ability to meet together in person as a church is of
the essence of what it means to be a church,” and that “if a church cannot meet in an assembly it
does not exist,” June Request at 2. The Church requested that the District allow it “to meet
outdoors in a responsible, socially distanced manner”—meaning that it would provide for sixfoot distancing between households and require attendees to wear masks. Id. at 2–3.
When it did not receive an answer from the District, the Church re-applied for a waiver
on September 1. Dunlop Decl. Ex. 6 (“September Request”), ECF No. 5-6. It informed the
District that it had begun holding services weekly in Virginia, where outdoor services were
permitted, but explained that “this has been a substantial burden on our congregation, most of
whom live in the District of Columbia” and “many of whom do not own vehicles.” Id. at 2. The
Church renewed its request to meet outdoors with similar precautions in place.
The District denied the Church’s waiver request on September 15. Dunlop Decl. Ex. 7,
ECF No. 5-7. The denial reiterated that current restrictions limited the Church to the fewer of 50
percent capacity or 100 persons—whether indoor or outdoor—and that “[w]aivers for places of
worship above that expanded capacity are not being granted at this time.” Id. at 2. Shortly after
that denial, the Church sued the District.
Along with its complaint, the Church filed a motion for a temporary restraining order,
Pl.’s Mot. for TRO, ECF No. 3, which the Court converted without objection into a motion for
an expedited preliminary injunction, Min. Order (Sept. 24, 2020). The Church seeks relief from
the District’s enforcement of its restrictions, which, as they currently stand, prevent it from
physically gathering as one congregation. Pl.’s Compl. at 25, ECF No. 1. The Church contends
that it is entitled to relief because it is likely to prove that the District’s actions violate RFRA and

5

its constitutional rights, and that it will suffer irreparable harm in the meantime. Pl.’s Mot. at
34–35. It requested an evidentiary hearing and asked to call Mayor Bowser as a witness. Hr’g
Tr. at 2–3. The Court denied this request. See LCvR 65.1(d) (“The practice in this jurisdiction is
to decide preliminary injunction motions without live testimony where possible.”). The District
opposed the Church’s request that Mayor Bowser testify and did not otherwise seek an
evidentiary hearing. Hr’g Tr. at 2–3.
The Church’s motion for injunctive relief is now ripe. 4 The Court heard oral arguments
from each side and has reviewed the statement of interest submitted by the United States, as well
the briefs submitted by amici curiae.
II.
A preliminary injunction is “an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right,” but as
an exercise of discretion by a court sitting in equity. Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555
U.S. 7, 24 (2008). This remedy should be granted only if the party moving for a preliminary
injunction makes a showing that four factors, taken together, warrant relief: (1) the party is
likely to succeed on the merits, (2) it will likely suffer irreparable harm in the absence of
preliminary relief, (3) the balance of the equities tips in its favor, and (4) an injunction serves the
public interest. League of Women Voters of the United States v. Newby, 838 F.3d 1, 6 (D.C. Cir.
2016). 5

4

This Court has jurisdiction under the federal question statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

5

How courts should weigh these factors against one another “remains an open question” in this
Circuit. Aamer v. Obama, 742 F.3d 1023, 1043 (D.C. Cir. 2014); see Dallas Safari Club v.
Bernhardt, 453 F. Supp. 3d 391, 398 (D.D.C. 2020) (tracing Circuit case law). Because the
Court finds that the Church prevails on each factor, it need not wade into this debate today.

6

The “primary purpose” of a preliminary injunction is “to preserve the status quo.” Aamer
v. Obama, 742 F.3d 1023, 1043 (D.C. Cir. 2014). So when the “requested injunction is
mandatory—that is, its terms would alter, rather than preserve, the status quo by commanding
some positive act” by the defendant—the movant must meet a higher burden. Dallas Safari Club
v. Bernhardt, 453 F. Supp. 3d 391, 398 (D.D.C. 2020). But see League of Women Voters, 838
F.3d at 7 (questioning distinction between “mandatory” and “prohibitory” injunctions).
Specifically, the party seeking a mandatory injunction must “show[] clearly that he or she is
entitled to relief or that extreme or very serious damage will result from the denial of the
injunction.” Dallas Safari Club, 453 F. Supp. 3d at 398.
The parties here disagree over whether this heightened standard applies to the Church’s
proposed injunction. See Defs.’ Opp. at 26–27 (arguing mandatory-injunction standard applies);
Hr’g Tr. 15–18. (Church’s counsel disputing “mandatory” characterization). The Court is
inclined to agree with the Church that its proposed injunction is not mandatory because it would
not command the government to act; indeed, the Church seeks to enjoin the District from
enforcing its restrictions. But the Court need not decide whether the mandatory-injunction
standard applies because a preliminary injunction would be warranted under either standard.
In general, “[a] preliminary injunction may be granted based on less formal procedures
and on less extensive evidence than in a trial on the merits,” although an evidentiary hearing is
required where there are “genuine issues of material fact” precluding a decision on the filings.
Cobell v. Norton, 391 F.3d 251, 261 (D.C. Cir. 2004); cf. Shvartser v. Lekser, 330 F. Supp. 3d
356, 361 (D.D.C. 2018) (deciding hearing was unnecessary where defendants did not request
hearing or raise any “genuine issues of material fact”). That said, because preliminary
injunctions are a drastic measure, “any injunction that the court issues must be carefully

7

circumscribed and tailored to remedy the harm shown” by the facts. Beacon Assocs., Inc. v.
Apprio, Inc., 308 F. Supp. 3d 277, 284 (D.D.C. 2018) (cleaned up).
III.
A.
The Church must first make a clear showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits of
one or more of its claims. League of Women Voters, 838 F.3d at 6. The Court begins with the
Church’s claim under RFRA.
A near-unanimous Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to
bolster protections for religious liberty. See Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. 682,
693 (2014); 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb (stating findings and purposes). Spurred by Employment
Division Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), in which the
Supreme Court narrowly interpreted the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, Congress
sought to restore the pre-Smith legal landscape and further protect those whose religious exercise
is “substantially burdened” by the government. 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb(b). 6 This instinct to protect
religious freedom has roots that predate the Constitution. See James Madison, Memorial and
Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (June 20, 1785), in SELECTED WRITINGS OF JAMES
MADISON 21, 22 (Ralph Ketcham ed., 2006) (“The Religion then of every man must be left to the
conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these
may dictate.”).

6

Recent cases denying injunctive relief for First Amendment challenges to COVID-19-related
restrictions are therefore of limited help to the District. See, e.g., S. Bay United Pentecostal
Church v. Newsom, 140 S. Ct. 1613 (2020); Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, 962
F.3d 341 (7th Cir. 2020).

8

Inherent—and, indeed, explicit—in Congress’s design for RFRA was a desire to allow
individuals to seek judicial relief from even neutral laws. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1. So
Congress fashioned a new statutory framework. RFRA provides that the government may not
“substantially burden” a person’s exercise of religion, “even if the burden results from a rule of
general applicability.” Id. § 2000bb–1(a). “The only exception recognized by the statute
requires the government to satisfy the compelling interest test,” that is, “to demonstrate that
application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental
interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental
interest.” Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418, 423
(2006) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb–1(b)) (cleaned up). The term “demonstrates” means
“meet[ing] the burdens of going forward with the evidence and of persuasion.” Id. at 428. As a
covered entity under the statute, the District of Columbia and its officials must comply with
RFRA. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-2. 7
1.
To benefit from RFRA’s protections, the Church must first show a substantial burden on
its religious exercise. 8 Only once that substantial burden has been established will the onus then
shift to the government to show that the law or regulation at issue is the least restrictive means to
further a compelling interest. Id. § 2000bb–1(b). RFRA defines “religious exercise” to include
7

As originally enacted, RFRA applied to states as well as the federal government. But in City
of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), the Supreme Court held that the statute’s application to
the states was beyond Congress’ legislative authority under the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at
536. RFRA continues to bind the District. See Potter v. District of Columbia., 558 F.3d 542,
546 (D.C. Cir. 2009).

8

Although RFRA speaks of a “person’s” exercise of religion, the Supreme Court has confirmed
that RFRA protections extend to entities such as churches, nonprofit organizations, and closely
held corporations. See Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. at 707–08.

9

“any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious
belief.” Id. §§ 2000bb–2(4), 2000cc–5(7). A litigant’s claimed beliefs “must be sincere and the
practice[] at issue must be of a religious nature.” Levitan v. Ashcroft, 281 F.3d 1313, 1320 (D.C.
Cir. 2002). But because the burdened practice need not be strictly compelled by the religious
tradition at issue to merit protection, courts “focus not on the centrality of the particular activity
to the adherent’s religion but rather on whether the adherent’s sincere religious exercise is
substantially burdened.” Kaemmerling v. Lappin, 553 F.3d 669, 678 (D.C. Cir. 2008). A
“substantial burden” exists when government action rises above de minimis inconveniences and
puts “substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” Id.
The Church believes that its congregation must meet in person each Sunday to worship
together. Dunlop Decl. at 1. The Church traces its commitment in part to “the scriptural
exhortation that adherents should ‘not forsak[e] the assembling of ourselves together.’” Pl.’s
Mot. at 10 (citing Hebrews 10:25 (KJV)). In a 2012 book, the Church’s Senior Pastor, Dr. Mark
Dever, wrote that a “biblically ordered church regularly gathers the whole congregation” because
without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a “biblically ordered church.” Dunlop Decl.
Ex. 3 at 6, ECF No. 5-3. This conviction echoes the Twelve Tribes of Israel gathering together
to worship, see, e.g., 2 Kings 23:1–3 (KJV), and St. Paul’s admonition that the church is “the
body of Christ,” 1 Corinthians 12:27 (KJV).
The sincerity of this belief is evident in the Church’s pre-COVID-19 practices: Unlike
many other houses of worship, the Church resisted holding multiple worship services on
Sundays, even as attendance approached 1,000 congregants. Dunlop Decl. at 1. The Church
contends that its religious exercise is substantially burdened by the District limiting all worship
services to no more than 100 people—no matter if they are outdoors, wearing masks, and

10

socially distanced—as this has prevented the Church from meeting at all as a congregation since
March. Id. at 2. Should it choose to contravene the District’s restrictions, the Church risks
incurring civil and administrative penalties, see Mayor’s Order 2020-075 at 12, including fines
of $1,000 per violation, D.C. Code § 7-2307.
For its part, the District does not dispute the sincerity of the Church’s belief that its
members must gather together in person for worship. Defs.’ Opp. at 46. Rather, it maintains that
the Church has nonetheless failed to prove that the District’s restrictions have substantially
burdened the Church’s religious exercise—particularly where there are other “methods” of
worship available. Id. at 45. The District proposes that under its current restrictions the Church
could “hold multiple services, host a drive-in service, or broadcast the service online or over the
radio,” as other faith communities in the District have done. Id. at 46.
But the District misses the point. It ignores the Church’s sincerely held (and undisputed)
belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation. The
“substantial burden inquiry asks whether the government has substantially burdened religious
exercise . . . not whether [the Church] is able to engage in other forms of religious exercise.”
Holt v. Hobbs, 574 U.S. 352, 361–62 (2015). The District may think that its proposed
alternatives are sensible substitutes. And for many churches they may be. But “it is not for [the
District] to say that [the Church’s] religious beliefs” about the need to meet together as one
corporal body “are mistaken or insubstantial.” Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S at 725; see also On Fire
Christian Ctr., Inc. v. Fischer, 453 F. Supp. 3d 901, 911 (W.D. Ky. 2020) (holding that it is “not
the role of a court to tell religious believers what is and isn’t important to their religion, so long
as their belief in the religious importance is sincere”). It is for the Church, not the District or this

11

Court, to define for itself the meaning of “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.”
Hebrews 10:25.
Nor should the Court weigh the relative burden to the Church by looking to how easily
other religious groups with distinct beliefs have voluntarily changed their worship to
accommodate the District’s restrictions. The “question that RFRA presents” is whether the
challenged action “imposes a substantial burden on the ability of the objecting parties to conduct
business in accordance with their religious beliefs.” Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. at 724 (emphasis in
original). The District’s restrictions surely have: The 100-person limit on worship services has
prevented the Church from meeting as a complete congregation, as its faith requires, since
March. The restrictions have thus “substantial[ly] pressure[d]” the Church to “modify [its]
behavior and to violate [its] beliefs.” Kaemmerling, 553 F.3d at 678. That the Church may
continue to hold services outdoors in Northern Virginia is no consolation; the government cannot
defeat a RFRA claim merely by telling citizens to go practice their religion in another
jurisdiction. Cf. W. Presbyterian Church v. Bd. of Zoning Adjustment of D.C., 849 F. Supp. 77,
78–79 (D.D.C. 1994) (finding RFRA barred city from denying church permit to continue feeding
the homeless on church property even though it could obtain permit to operate its charity
program elsewhere).
The District cites several cases in which the D.C. Circuit held that government
restrictions did not impose a substantial burden under RFRA, but they only underscore the
importance of focusing on how government action affects religious exercise. In Henderson v.
Kennedy, the Court denied a RFRA claim when the plaintiffs challenged a regulation prohibiting
them from selling t-shirts on the National Mall. 253 F.3d 12, 16 (D.C. Cir. 2001). The
plaintiffs’ “declarations d[id] not suggest that their religious beliefs demand that they sell t-shirts

12

in every place human beings occupy or congregate,” nor specifically at the National Mall. Id.
The Court determined that there was no substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ high-level, yet
sincere, commitment to preaching their religious message “by all available means,” when an
infinite number of means remained unencumbered. Id. The plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious
belief—spreading the message of the Gospel to others—could still be exercised. Not so for the
Church, whose convictions mandate meeting together in person as a full congregation. That
belief cannot be legally exercised here so long as the District’s restrictions remains in place.
Or take Mahoney v. Doe, in which the D.C. Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s challenge
under RFRA to an ordinance prohibiting the defacement of the street in front of the White
House. 642 F.3d 1112, 1120–22 (D.C. Cir. 2011). The court noted that “chalk art” was “only
part of [the plaintiff’s] public prayer vigils, demonstrations, protests and rallies,” and the
government did not force the plaintiff “to engage in conduct that [his] religion forbids” or
prevent him “from engaging in conduct [his] religion requires.” Id. at 1121. The plaintiff thus
did not establish a belief specific to the activity that the challenged regulations would burden. In
contrast, the Church faces “civil and administrative penalties” if it physically meets as one
congregation in the city. Mayor’s Order 2020-075 at 12.
The District has not, as it contends, banned merely one “method of worship,” but instead
has foreclosed the Church’s only method to exercise its belief in meeting together as a
congregation, as its faith requires. Given the District’s restrictions, the Church now must choose
between violating the law or violating its religious convictions. This constitutes a substantial
burden under RFRA.

13

2.
Because the Church has shown that the District’s restrictions substantially burden its
religious exercise, the onus shifts to the District to prove with admissible evidence that applying
its restrictions to the Church “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2)
is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000bb–1(b); O Centro, 546 U.S. at 430–31.
The Court must look “beyond broadly formulated interests justifying the general
applicability of government mandates and scrutinize[] the asserted harms of granting specific
exemptions” to this Church in particular. Id. at 431. This standard is “exceptionally
demanding.” Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. at 728. It requires the District to show that “no alternative
forms of regulation would accomplish the compelling interest without infringing religious
exercise rights.” Kaemmerling, 553 F.3d at 684 (cleaned up). In facing this strict scrutiny, the
burden remains on the District, even as the Church moves for a preliminary injunction. O
Centro, 546 U.S. at 429 (noting that burdens at preliminary injunction stage track those at trial).
At the outset, the District urges that Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905),
relaxes the heavy burden that would normally fall on it. Jacobson counseled that “under the
pressure of great dangers”—a recent smallpox outbreak—constitutional rights may be reasonably
restricted “as the safety of the general public may demand.” Id. at 29. Courts have recently
invoked Jacobson when assessing whether governmental measures in response to the COVID-19
pandemic infringe on individual rights and liberties. See, e.g., In re Abbott, 954 F.3d 772, 778
(5th Cir. 2020); Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, 962 F.3d 341, 347 (7th Cir.
2020). But there are reasons to think that Jacobson is not an appropriate lodestar here.

14

First, Jacobson addressed whether a state law mandating vaccination violated an
individual’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process “right to care for his own body and
health in such way as to him seems best.” 197 U.S. at 26. The unique array of claims before the
Jacobson Court—such as that the regulation violated the preamble and spirit of the
Constitution—included none under the First Amendment. It may very well be that it “is a
considerable stretch to read [Jacobson] as establishing the test to be applied when statewide
measures of indefinite duration are challenged under the First Amendment or other provisions
not at issue in that case.” Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 140 S. Ct. 2603, 2608
(2020) (Mem.) (Alito, J., dissenting). 9
Second, woven into Jacobson is the recognition that at the time the plaintiff refused the
vaccination, smallpox was “prevalent and increasing” in the area and posed an acute risk to
public health. 197 U.S. at 28. And we know the feeling: Much of this city and country have
faced similar public health risks recently or are facing them currently. In such circumstances,
judicial scrutiny may recede to its lowest ebb, leaving room for an energetic response by the
political branches to the many uncertainties accompanying the onset of a public health crisis.
But when a crisis stops being temporary, and as days and weeks turn to months and years, the
slack in the leash eventually runs out. “While the law may take periodic naps during a

9

To the extent that the District argues that the Supreme Court “rejected” one or more parts of
Justice Alito’s dissent in Calvary Chapel, it is mistaken on the meaning of the Supreme Court’s
denial of emergency relief. Such denials are not “decision[s] on the merits of the underlying
legal issues.” Ind. State Police Pension Tr. v. Chrysler LLC, 556 U.S. 960, 960 (2009). For
instance, the Court may deny relief based merely on the lack of a reasonable probability that at
least four Justices will consider the issue sufficiently meritorious to later grant certiorari. So
other Justices, and even a majority of the Court, may very well have agreed with Justice Alito’s
suspicion of Jacobson and its application to the issues facing the Court. The Court’s mere denial
of relief should not be read as indicative of its views on the merits.

15

pandemic, we will not let it sleep through one.” Roberts v. Neace, 958 F.3d 409, 414–15 (6th
Cir. 2020) (per curiam).
Third, and most importantly, the District articulates no reason why Jacobson’s
framework applies when assessing a RFRA claim. The District cites no cases in which a court
has applied Jacobson’s relaxed standard instead of the strict scrutiny test detailed in the statute.
See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb–1(b). 10 And recall that RFRA “did more than merely restore the
balancing test used in the [pre-Smith] line of cases; it provided even broader protection for
religious liberty than was available under those decisions.” Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. at 695 n.3.
Congress incorporated a specific burden-shifting framework into RFRA. Courts must respect
that decision and dutifully apply its scheme.
Under RFRA, the District must prove a compelling interest in banning the specific
religious practice at issue: Gathering for religious worship outdoors while wearing masks and

10

At the hearing, counsel for the District listed three cases that cite Jacobson. But none of these
cases apply reasoning from Jacobson to override the clear burden-shifting scheme detailed in
RFRA, as the District urges here. In American Life League, Inc. v. Reno, 47 F.3d 642 (4th Cir.
1995), the Fourth Circuit listed cases in which the Supreme Court has identified compelling
government interests, as well as characterized Jacobson as a case where the Court “discuss[ed]
fundamental ‘liberty’ interests” and “found the public health and safety interest decisive in
upholding mandatory vaccination.” Id. at 655–56 and n.7. This is unremarkable. No one denies
that public health and safety may serve as compelling interests in challenges under the First
Amendment or RFRA. The Fourth Circuit did not rely on Jacobson for anything more,
especially not relieving the government of its compelling interest burden. Id. at 656. Counsel
next pointed to Cassell v. Snyders, No. 20-C-50153, 2020 WL 2112374 (N.D. Ill. May 3, 2020).
This case is of little help as it analyzed claims under the First Amendment and Illinois’s RFRA,
not the federal statute passed by Congress and at issue here. More, although Cassell read
Jacobson as holding that “[d]uring an epidemic . . . the traditional tiers of constitutional scrutiny
do not apply,” id. at *6, this altered the court’s analysis of only the Free Exercise claim, see id. at
*7 (stating that “because the current crisis implicates Jacobson . . . Plaintiffs have a less than
negligible chance of prevailing on their constitutional claim”). The court later analyzed the
Illinois RFRA claim separately, without reference to Jacobson. Counsel’s third case was Illinois
Republican Party v. Pritzker, No. 20-C-3489, 2020 WL 3604106 (N.D. Ill. July 2, 2020), a case
with no claims under RFRA and no relevance here.

16

socially distancing. As the Sixth Circuit recently explained when enjoining similar restrictions
based on Kentucky’s RFRA statute: “The likelihood-of-success inquiry instead turns on whether
[the] orders were ‘the least restrictive means’ of achieving these public health interests. Ky. Rev.
Stat. § 446.350. That’s a difficult hill to climb, and it was never meant to be anything less.”
Maryville Baptist Church, Inc. v. Beshear, 957 F.3d 610, 613 (6th Cir. 2020) (citing Barr v. City
of Sinton, 295 S.W.3d 287, 289 (Tex. 2009); Holt, 574 U.S. at 364).
The District cannot rely on its generalized interests in protecting public health or
combating the COVID-19 pandemic, critical though they may be. Rather, RFRA requires the
District to “demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the
challenged law ‘to the person’—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is
being substantially burdened.” O Centro, 546 U.S. at 430–31. The District has failed to meet its
burden at this stage, as it presented little to no evidence that it has a compelling interest in
applying its restrictions to ban the type of services that the Church wishes to hold. 11 And some
of the scant evidence that does appear in the record cuts against the District’s arguments.
Consider the District’s response to mass protests over the past year, which included
thousands of citizens marching through the streets of the city, including along streets that the
District closed specifically for that purpose. Pl.’s Mot. at 17–20; Defs.’ Opp. at 33–34. And the
Mayor appeared at one of the mass gatherings, “welcom[ing]” hundreds if not thousands of
protestors tightly packed into Black Lives Matter Plaza and announcing that it was “so wonderful
to see everybody peacefully protesting, wearing [their] mask[s].” 12 Indeed, Mayor Bowser
11

The District had a chance to seek an evidentiary hearing for this motion, but it declined. See
Hr’g Tr. at 2–4. It also opposed the Church’s request to subpoena the Mayor. Id.
12

WUSA9, DC Mayor Bowser Attends Justice For George Floyd Protest At Black Lives Matter
Plaza, YouTube.com (June 6, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVyhydp1lU&feature=youtu.be. Although the District contends that it has no authority over
17

christened “Black Lives Matter Plaza” when “she directed the D.C. Department of Public Works
to create a mural on 16th Street N.W., near the White House, to ‘honor the peaceful protesters
from June 1, 2020 and send a message that District streets are a safe space for peaceful
protestors.’” Penkoski v. Bowser, --- F. Supp.3d ---, 2020 WL 4923620, at *2 (D.D.C. Aug. 21,
2020).
No matter how the protests were organized and planned, the District’s (and in particular,
Mayor Bowser’s) support for at least some mass gatherings undermines its contention that it has
a compelling interest in capping the number of attendees at the Church’s outdoor services. The
Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests also implies that the District favors some
gatherings (protests) over others (religious services). When faced with similar facts in a First
Amendment challenge, another court explained that high-profile government officials
encouraging and participating in protests “sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving
of preferential treatment.” Soos v. Cuomo, --- F. Supp.3d ---, 2020 WL 3488742, at *12
(N.D.N.Y. June 26, 2020). The court noted that the officials—Governor Cuomo and Mayor de
Blasio—could have “been silent” or “could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of
condemning their message, in the name of public health.” Id. So too here. Mayor Bowser, like
Mayor de Blasio, is a high-level government official with “clear enforcement power.” Id. Her
actions speak volumes.
The District attempts to distinguish the risks posed by mass “protest marches” from those
posed by “worship services in which individuals stand in place for long periods of time,” Defs.’
Opp. at 33, but it marshaled no scientific evidence on this point. Its main source of support
protests on federal land, see Defs.’ Opp. at 23, at least some mass protests—including the one at
Black Lives Matter Plaza where Mayor Bowser spoke—have taken place on the District’s
property.

18

stems from an assertion made by Christopher Rodriguez, Ph.D., 13 Director of the District’s
Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, in a declaration stating: “Different
events present different levels of threat about the spread of COVID-19; for example, the risk is
higher for an event involving people standing in one place than for one in which people are
moving.” Decl. of Christopher Rodriguez at 2, ECF No. 15-5. If this assertion is making a
scientific claim, it falls well short of the evidentiary standard in Daubert v. Merrell Dow
Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Cf. United States v. H & R Block, Inc., 831 F.
Supp. 2d 27 (D.D.C. 2011) (applying Daubert analysis to evidence presented in opposition to
preliminary injunction). And even if the Court credited this statement, which it does not, it
would not by itself establish that fully-masked and socially distanced outdoor worship is
particularly dangerous. In fact, the District’s brief explains that the protests did not trigger any
spike in COVID-19 “outbreaks,” undermining the notion that large gatherings are always
exceptionally dangerous. See Defs’ Opp. at 33; see also Hr’g Tr. at 44–45.
Now months into this public health crisis, the District has had the opportunity to
determine with greater particularity the risks presented by COVID-19 and the restrictions
necessary; sweeping justifications perhaps more suitable to the early stages of a public health
crisis will not suffice. On the record here, the District has not shown that it has a compelling
interest in applying its 100-person limit to the Church’s proposed outdoor services.
Even if the District met its burden to show a compelling interest, it would also need to
establish that there are no less restrictive means to further that interest than prohibiting the
Church from gathering more than 100 congregants within the city. This “least-restrictive-means

13

As pointed out by the Church at the hearing, Dr. Rodriguez earned his Ph.D in political
science. Hr’g Tr. at 29–30. He appears to have no medical background.

19

standard is exceptionally demanding,” as it mandates that if “a less restrictive means is available
for the Government to achieve its goals, the Government must use it.” Holt, 574 U.S. at 364–65.
The District insists that “[n]arrower ways to promote public safety would be less effective in
preventing the spread of the virus,” Defs.’ Opp. at 39, yet it neglects to demonstrate how it
knows this to be the case. RFRA demands more from the District than bare assertions. See 42
U.S.C. § 2000bb–2(3) (stating that the “term ‘demonstrates’ means meets the burdens of going
forward with the evidence and of persuasion”).
This is especially true when the District currently treats some activities with a lighter
hand. Seemingly given a pass are outdoor dining establishments, or “streataries.” Pl.’s Mot. at
14. The District has permitted hundreds of dining establishments to serve meals outdoors. See
Martens Decl. Ex. 15 at 5, ECF No. 4-15. More than just providing food for consumption,
outdoor restaurants serve as focal points for fellowship and communion, not unlike worship
services. Yet outdoor dining establishments currently face no limit on the number of patrons
they may serve, as “persons sitting outdoors” are not counted for their capacity limitations.
Mayor’s Order 2020-075 at 5–6. Perhaps there are good reasons for this distinction, but the
District yet again leaves the Court to speculate.
More, an amicus curiae brief submitted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty details
the regulations in effect in all 50 states, most which either contain no capacity limitations for
outdoor gatherings or explicitly exempt religious gatherings from capacity limitations otherwise
in effect. See Becket Br. Ex. A, ECF No. 25-1. The Court acknowledges the District’s
contention that statewide orders in effect in states around the country may not be appropriate
comparators for this city, given its size, location, and population density. Hr’g Tr. at 35–36. But
that the Church has been congregating across the river in Northern Virginia, where there are no

20

capacity limitations on worship services, casts doubt on the need for the District’s chosen policy.
See Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. 682 at 730–31 (determining less restrictive means available in part
by existence of alternative “approach” used in similar circumstances).
For its part, the Church outlines other policies, such as holding services outside with
mandatory social distancing and mask-wearing, that it suggests are less restrictive but equally
effective in mitigating transmission of the virus. 14 The District was, of course, welcome to refute
the Church’s claim with evidence of its own. But the Church “must be deemed likely to prevail
unless the Government has shown that [the movant’s] proposed less restrictive alternatives are
less effective than [enforcing the District’s capacity limit].” O Centro, 546 U.S. at 429
(emphasis added). The District has failed to carry its burden on the record here, and therefore
the Church has shown that it is likely to succeed on the merits. 15
*

*

*

After briefing concluded on the Church’s motion for a preliminary injunction and after
the Court held a hearing on that motion, the District filed a “Supplemental Declaration.” See
Notice of Suppl. Decl., ECF No. 40. This was improper. At the September 23 conference on
this matter, the Court made clear the briefing schedule, pushing the due date of the District’s
Opposition to October 2 to augment its time to respond. The District opposed the Church’s

14

Notably, the District has distinguished between outdoor and indoor events for other types of
gatherings. For example, restaurants may serve patrons “up to fifty percent (50%) of their
maximum capacity,” but “persons sitting outdoors are not counted in this capacity
limit.” Mayor’s Order 2020-075 at 5–6.
15

The Church’s complaint argues that the District has also violated the First Amendment’s Free
Speech, Freedom of Assembly, and Free Exercise Clauses, as well as the Fifth Amendment’s
Due Process Clause. Compl. at 17, 19, 22–23. Because the Church is likely to succeed on the
merits of the its RFRA claim, and considering the interest in expeditiously resolving this motion,
the Court does not reach the Church’s constitutional claims now.

21

request to further develop the factual record by calling the Mayor as a witness, and it did not
request an evidentiary hearing. It never sought leave to submit additional evidence. The Court
will not condone the District sandbagging the Church at the eleventh hour. The Court will
therefore strike the filing. Accord McGovern v. Geo. Wash. Univ., 245 F. Supp. 3d 167, 179
(D.D.C. 2017).
Even if the Court were inclined to consider the District’s filing, the outcome would not
change. Along with the declaration of Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, who admits that her office “has
not studied the proposals of Capitol Hill Baptist Church,” Decl. of Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt at 4,
ECF No. 40-1, the District submits two exhibits. Neither addresses the Church’s claims. Both
exhibits summarize health studies that analyze apparent exposures to COVID-19 stemming from
indoor, non-socially distanced, unmasked church gatherings in March 2020. See Defs.’ Notice
of Suppl. Decl., Exs. 1, 2, ECF No. 40-1. The studies do not address activities like those
proposed by the Church. And the Court rejects any suggestion that religious gatherings in
themselves are somehow especially conducive to COVID-19. See Maryville Baptist Church, 957
F.3d at 615 (“Risks of contagion turn on social interaction in close quarters; the virus does not
care why they are there.”).
B.
The Court next considers whether the Church has shown that it will suffer irreparable
injury in the absence of injunctive relief. See League of Women Voters, 838 F.3d at 6. When
plaintiffs “establish[] a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their RFRA claim,” they
have also “adequately demonstrated that they will suffer irreparable harm absent the issuance of
a preliminary injunction.” Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. v. Sebelius, 904 F. Supp. 2d 106, 129
(D.D.C. 2012). This is because “it is well settled that ‘the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for

22

even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,’” and “by extension
the same is true of rights afforded under the RFRA, which covers the same types of rights as
those protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” Id. (quoting Elrod v.
Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976)) (cleaned up). The conclusion that the Church is likely to succeed
on the merits of its RFRA claim therefore also suffices to show that the Church will be
irreparably harmed without injunctive relief. 16
Even if irreparable injury did not automatically follow from the likelihood-of-success-onthe-merits factor, the Court would have no trouble concluding that the Church has made a
showing adequate to obtain injunctive relief. To show irreparable injury, a party seeking a
preliminary injunction must ordinarily show: (1) that the harm is “‘certain and great,’ ‘actual
and not theoretical,’ and so ‘imminen[t] that there is a clear and present need for equitable relief
to prevent irreparable harm’”; and (2) that the harm is “beyond remediation.” League of Women
Voters, 838 F.3d at 7–8 (alteration in original) (quoting Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches v.
England, 454 F.3d 290, 297 (D.C. Cir. 2006)).
The Church has made the first showing because it has been and continues to be prevented
from exercising its religion as it sees fit—under pain of violating the law—so long as the
District’s current restrictions are in effect. This is not the sort of harm that has been held “far too
speculative to warrant preliminary injunctive relief.” Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, 454

16

Some cases suggest, in the First Amendment context at least, that a plaintiff must “do more
than merely allege a violation of freedom of expression in order to satisfy the irreparable injury
prong of the preliminary injunction frame-work.” Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches v.
England, 454 F.3d 290, 301 (D.C. Cir. 2006). In particular, a movant must prove that its rights
“are either threatened or in fact being impaired at the time relief is sought.” Id. (quoting Nat’l
Treas. Empls. Union v. United States, 927 F.2d 1253, 1254–55 (D.C. Cir. 1991)). The Church
has made that showing here, as its ability to meet as a congregation is “in fact being impaired”
by the District’s current restrictions.

23

F.3d at 298 (holding that Navy’s “practice of retaining Catholic chaplains past applicable age
limits” constituted only “hypothetical” injury for Protestant chaplains). The Church has also
made the second showing because, according to the Church’s undisputed, sincerely held belief,
there is no substitute for meeting as a unified whole. See, e.g., Pl.’s Mot. at 7. Missing a chance
to gather on Sunday is not a “[m]ere injur[y] . . . in terms of money, time and energy,”
Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, 454 F.3d at 297–98, but instead a harm for which “there
can be no do over and no redress,” League of Women Voters, 838 F.3d at 9 (quoting League of
Women Voters of N.C. v. North Carolina, 769 F.3d 224, 247 (4th Cir. 2014)); see also Maryville
Baptist Church, 957 F.3d at 616 (reasoning that “the prohibition on attending any worship
service [on Sundays] assuredly inflicts irreparable harm”).
The District argues that the Church does not face irreparable harm because it can either
keep meeting in Virginia or conduct services in the District within the limits of the current
restrictions—i.e., the Church could “conduct an unlimited number of services . . . with 100 or
fewer people at a time,” broadcast its services “by radio,” or use “drive-in services.” Defs.’ Opp.
at 50. Not so. Recall that meeting physically as a whole congregation is crucial to what the
District admits is the Church’s sincerely held religious belief. Id. at 46. While some of its
members have been able to meet in Virginia, the Church could not gather as an entire
congregation. Most of the Church’s members reside in the District, and many members do not
have transportation to attend services outside the District. Dunlop Decl. at 2–3.
The Court likewise rejects the District’s argument that the Church cannot show
irreparable harm because of its delay in seeking injunctive relief. See Defs.’ Opp. at 51–52. The
District contends that the Church waited “more than six months after the first Mayor’s Order
restricting mass gatherings” to sue. Id. at 52. But as the District admits, the Church was not

24

twiddling its thumbs during that period—it “discussed with the District alternatives to fullcongregation meetings” and “twice sought administrative relief in the form of an exemption from
the Mayor’s Orders.” Id. at 52. This is the sort of behavior that courts ordinarily encourage—
indeed, sometimes require, see, e.g., Park v. Howard Univ., 71 F.3d 904, 909 (D.C. Cir. 1995)
(barring a plaintiff’s hostile-work-environment claim because “she failed to exhaust her
administrative remedies for such a claim at the EEOC”)—from would-be plaintiffs in the interest
of efficiency and judicial economy, cf. Andrade v. Lauer, 729 F.2d 1475, 1484 (D.C. Cir. 1984)
(stating that, among other purposes, the exhaustion requirement “promotes judicial economy . . .
by perhaps avoiding the necessity of any judicial involvement at all”). The Church will not now
be punished for seeking an amicable resolution before rushing to the courthouse.
C.
Finally: Has the Church shown that the balance of the equities and the public interest
support the Court granting relief? These factors merge when, as here, the government is the
party opposing the injunction. Nken v. Holder, 556 U.S. 418, 435 (2009); Karem v. Trump, 960
F.3d 656, 668 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (applying Nken in the context of a preliminary injunction).
The balance of the equities and the public interest favor the Court granting relief. While
the public clearly has an interest in controlling the spread of disease, see Defs.’ Opp. at 53–54,
the public also has an interest in honoring protections for religious freedom in accordance with
the laws passed by Congress, cf. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 904 F. Supp. 2d at 130
(“[T]here is undoubtedly also a public interest in ensuring that the rights secured under the First
Amendment and, by extension, the RFRA, are protected.”). Here, where the Church is likely to
succeed in proving that the District has violated its rights under RFRA, the equities and public
interest weigh in its favor. The Church has consistently represented that it will take appropriate

25

precautions such as holding services outdoors, providing for social distancing, and requiring
masks. Pl.’s Reply Br. at 25. 17 As explained, the District has not put forward sufficient evidence
showing that prohibiting a gathering with these precautions is necessary to protect the public.
IV.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly presented unique challenges to governments,
which are tasked with balancing the public safety and religious freedom. The Court
acknowledges the difficult decisions facing the Mayor here. But Congress set rules for this sort
of balancing when it enacted RFRA.
The Church has shown that it is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions
impose a substantial burden on its exercise of religion. For its part, the District has not shown
that it is likely to prove a compelling interest in prohibiting the Church from holding outdoor
worship services with appropriate precautions, or that its restrictions are the least restrictive
means available to achieve its public health objectives.
The Court grants the Church’s motion for injunctive relief. A separate order will issue.

2020.10.09
22:48:06 -04'00'
Dated: October 9, 2020

TREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

17

Though the District argues that “hundreds of houses of worship around the District” would be
permitted “to hold gatherings in excess of 100 persons” were the Court to grant relief, Defs.’
Opp. at 53, the Church clarified at oral argument here that it is not pursuing a class action and
seeks relief only specific to its services, Hr’g Tr. at 18–19; see also Doran v. Salem Inn, Inc., 422
U.S. 922, 931 (1975) (“neither declaratory nor injunctive relief can directly interfere with
enforcement of contested statutes or ordinances except with respect to the particular federal
plaintiffs”).

26


Capitol Hill Baptist



WHY DO CHRISTIANS GATHER?

Capitol Hill Baptist Church - Quick Take: Why Christians Gather?

 

Statement (https://b1033ecbf0be9f1f78e09ff91644b80b1213b3e9d43ad0f0e963.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/uploaded/o/0e11075981_1602971232_oct-09-2020-statement.pdf)
on our efforts to begin gathering again in DC.
Church Gathering
We plan to gather outdoors as a church on Sunday, October 25 at Anacostia Park (1900 Anacostia Dr, Washington, DC 20020)
at 3:30pm. Please download the logistics guide (https://b1033ecbf0be9f1f78e09ff91644b80b1213b3e9d43ad0f0e963.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/uploaded/l/0e10628198_1602880901_logistics-guide-meeting-atanacostia-18oct2020.pdf) and bulletin (https://b1033ecbf0be9f1f78e09ff91644b80b1213b3e9d43ad0f0e963.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/uploaded/b/0e4029059_1603207014_bulletin-for-sunday-october25.pdf) before you arrive. Masks are required.
Core Seminars
We plan to offer six Core Seminar classes in the church building at 9:30am on Sunday: Membership Matters, Old Testament
Overview, Unity and Diversity, How to Grow, Church History, and Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Please register here
(https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf-JBvYhjL7scLZOamz0aa240DTZ7DKmu-DDf8FD2wuWDe7Rw/viewform) if
you would like to attend this Sunday.
Wednesday Night
At 7pm this Wednesday in the Main Hall, we have a Q&A with Associate Pastor nominee, Riley Barnes. Please register here
(https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScGERhh0iudIJwrQn3JE23EDrfvA58FqfwkTHjW3UR3tHBeTA/viewform?
vc=0&c=0&w=1& r=0&gxids=7628) if you would like to attend. You can also view a livestream via Zoom here
(https://capitolhillbaptist.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=c8fd670c87707c797aa20206a&id=67eae7b7e2&e=511c787071).
Learning through Differences
The fourth of a four-part teaching series will be held from 7pm-8:30pm in the Main Hall on Tuesday, October 20. We will be
hearing a panel discussion. Please register here (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeRItV3ZdGLFBEdguokadSyYfUFp3iQ6Hd_NVi1tMXqLRdVw/viewform?vc=0&c=0&w=1& r=0&gxids=7628) if you would like to attend.
You can also view a livestream of the study via Zoom here (https://www.google.com/url?
q=https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81008912820&sa=D&source=calendar&ust=1601402155343000&usg=AOvVaw0y2HhDIuXjQ7PO9Kgl1giD).
 
For information about our membership class and how to join the church, please email frontdesk@capbap.org
(mailto:frontdesk@capbap.org).

NEW HERE?
basic information for visiting and getting to know us

(/new-here)

SERMON ARCHIVE
audio les for download or streaming 1995 to present

(/resources/sermons)

CORE SEMINARS
free adult education curriculum developed at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

(/resources/core-seminars)

L AT E S T M E S S A G E - V I D E O

Civil Government (/sermon/civil-government)
BY BOBBY JAMIESON

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OCTOBER 18TH, 2020

UPCOMING EVENTS

New Here? (/new-here)
Service Times (/visit-us/service-times)
How to Get Here (/visit-us/directions-parking)
What We Believe (/about-us/what-we-believe)
Our History (/about-us/our-history)
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Leadership & Staff (/about-us/leadership-staff)

Other Resources
9Marks Ministries (http://www.9marks.org)
Campus Outreach (http://www.campusoutreachdc.org)
Praise Factory Children's Curriculum (http://www.praisefactory.org)
Pastoral Internships (/pastoral-internship)
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