Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser Announced Churches Are Told to Close Their Doors and Forsake Their Religious Teachings…
The Department of Justice on Friday announced it had filed a statement of interest in the case filed by Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., against the District of Columbia and Mayor Muriel Bowser. The 853-member church has a strong religious conviction that it must meet weekly and in person, as a single body, for worship. As a result of Mayor Bowser’s onerous COVID-19 orders (first capping worship services at 10 people and now 100), Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) has not been able to meet together in the District since March. As a temporary measure, they’ve been meeting in a field in Virginia.
The congregation had asked the mayor for permission to meet at the 45,000-plus-seat Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which would give them ample room to social distance, but the city denied the application for a waiver, and also the church’s appeals. (More background here.)
Finally, on Sept. 22, the church filed a lawsuit and a request for a temporary restraining order asking that they be allowed to hold outdoor worship services in the District of Columbia, citing the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. CHBC says the mayor has double standards—one for churches and another for large gatherings of protesters. The lawsuit pointed out that the mayor herself has attended some of these gatherings.
“The right to free exercise of religion and the right to protest are both enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, in a press release. “We are a nation dedicated to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The District of Columbia has, unfortunately, neglected these rights. The Justice Department is committed to defending both of these fundamental freedoms and in supporting all Americans’ rights to worship as they choose.”
The statement of interest is part of Attorney General William P. Barr’s initiative, announced April 27, directing the DOJ to “review governmental policies around the country to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“While a local government has significant discretion to decide what measures to adopt to meet a public health threat, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution requires that, whatever level of restrictions it adopts, government must treat religious gatherings the same as comparable nonreligious gatherings, absent the government meeting strict scrutiny, that is, proving that it has a compelling governmental interest pursued through the least restrictive means,” the DOJ argued in the statement of interest. “Similarly, the Free Speech Clause forbids the government from discriminating against certain speech while privileging other speech with a viewpoint favored by the government, unless it meets strict scrutiny.”
The District of Columbia is also bound by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Justice Department said. RFRA “requires that any government action imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise meet strict scrutiny.” The city’s current approach to COVID-19 restrictions “has the effect of treating some forms of protected First Amendment activity differently than other forms of comparable activity and in so doing singles out religious exercise for differential treatment.” CHBC has demonstrated that its lawsuit is likely to succeed on merits, the statement of interest noted.
In its filing, the DOJ said that while the United States “has a strong interest, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in ensuring the development and maintenance of the best possible public health strategies to combat the virus and protect the people of the United States from harm,” that interest “must be balanced with constitutional liberties.”
“Although the precise legal tests may change based on the specific restriction at issue, the bottom line remains the same: there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and our fundamental rights,” the DOJ lawyers declared. [Emphasis added] “Individual rights set forth in the Constitution are always operative and restrain government action.”
Mayor Bowser and the District of Columbia clearly don’t agree. Protesters who have the “correct” political views are allowed to gather in the streets with impunity—and without anyone in the mayor’s office, the MSM, or Democratic Party saying boo about it—while churches are told to close their doors and forsake their religious teachings. The aforementioned leftists have no use for those “icky” Christians who insist on obeying the Bible, but, ah, the protesters and rioters—they, and they alone, are worthy of robust constitutional protections amid the pandemic. That hypocrisy is what CHBC takes issue with. The Justice Department is insisting that the discrimination stop.
People need Jesus during these tumultuous times. Christians need to be in church, where they can obey biblical mandates to hear the Word of God preached, partake of Communion, and fellowship together. A few brave churches are wading into the fray, asking only to be treated the way other groups are and for the government to abide by the First Amendment and RFRA. William Barr and Trump’s Department of Justice are making it clear that government “shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Period. Not even during a pandemic.
Police in Greenville, Miss., issued $500 tickets to Christians who gathered in a church parking lot to worship together in the safety of their cars on Wednesday. The Christians at Temple Baptist Church intended to honor coronavirus social distancing restrictions while gathering to worship God, but the police cracked down, regardless.
Charles E. Hamilton Jr., pastor of King James Bible Baptist Church, raised the alarm on Facebook Wednesday evening.
“The police in Greenville, MS went to Temple Baptist Church this evening and gave everyone there a ticket for $500 because they had a drive in service,” Hamilton posted. “Everyone was in their cars with the windows up listening to pastor Arthur Scott preached on the radio. What is harmful about people being in their cars listening to preaching with their windows up? Christians do you all see what is going on?”
Parishioner Chris Owens shared a video of a police officer giving him a citation for attending the drive-in worship service. In the video, Owens explains that the church wanted to comply with social distancing rules while still meeting for worship. The officer issues the citation, regardless.
“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Temple Baptist Church Pastor Arthur Scott told Todd Starnes. “I told them to get some more tickets ready because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.”
The elderly pastor said that as many as 25 cars were in the parking lot for the service and everyone in the cars was ticketed. Scott has pastored the church for 45 years.
“The police officer said I might go to jail,” Scott added. “If it means going to jail and if it takes that for me to keep preaching, I’ll be glad to go to jail.”
“The government does not have the right to shut down places of worship,” the governor said. “If you start taking people’s rights away, very rarely does the government ever give them back to them.”
He encouraged churches not to meet, but would not enforce a rule.
“Mississippi is not China, and it never will be,” Reeves insisted.
Earlier, the governor had acknowledged that some churches were holding drive-in services, allowing cars to park outside the sanctuary to have socially distant prayer and listen to a pastor’s message on the radio. Reeves said he does not believe the government has the power to shut down churches, but he discouraged drive-in services.
“It’s just hard to overcome our natural tendency to get out and say hello,” he said last week.
Yet Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons, a Democrat who has endorsed Joe Biden, and the city council banned churches from hosting drive-in services on Tuesday.
“The City of Greenville put in place an Executive Order that orders all church buildings closed for in person and drive in church services, until the State of Mississippi’s Shelter In Place Executive Order No. 1466 is lifted by Governor Tate Reeves. Churches are strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, and any and all other social media, streaming, and telephonic platforms,” the order read.
On Thursday, the religious freedom law firm First Liberty sent Simmons a demand letter, urging the mayor to retract the order. First Liberty represents Hamilton, pastor of the nearby King James Bible Baptist Church, who is also hosting drive-in services on Easter Sunday. The demand letter claims that Simmons’ order violates the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion by singling out churches for unusual restrictions.
“Religious liberty is not suspended during a pandemic. American’s can tolerate a lot, if it means demonstrating love for their fellow man, but they will not—nor should not—tolerate churchgoers being ticketed by the police for following CDC guidelines at church. This has to stop now,” Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty, told PJ Media in a statement on Thursday.
There is no doubt that persecution is a stark reality of living the Christian life. Christian persecution is to be expected: the apostle Paul warned that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus said that, if they persecuted Him, they will also persecute His followers (John 15:20). Jesus made it clear that those of the world will hate Christians because the world hates Christ. If Christians were like the world—vain, earthly, sensual, and given to pleasure, wealth, and ambition—the world would not oppose us. But Christians do not belong to the world, which is why the world engages in Christian persecution (see John 15:18–19). Christians are influenced by different principles from those of the world. We are motivated by the love of God and holiness, while the world is driven by the love of sin. It is our very separation from the world that arouses the world’s animosity (1 Peter 4:3–4).
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