U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, recently joined fellow senators in filing an amicus brief supporting Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s position in the case of Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser.
The case concerns Mayor Muriel Bowser who issued an executive order banning outdoor church services of more than 100 individuals even if worshippers are socially distanced and wearing masks. Capitol Hill Baptist Church is located in Washington, D.C. and has complied with Mayor Bowser’s executive order prohibiting large scale gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church has applied for a waiver of the 100-person limit in order to hold services outside, but the mayor’s office denied its application, stating that waivers for houses of worship are being categorically denied. Since the executive order went into effect, however, Bowser and the District of Columbia have supported other large outdoor protests and gatherings.
The amicus brief argues that the District of Columbia’s denial of Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s waiver runs contradictory to the mayor and city’s approval of other large-scale gatherings and protests, and this selective enforcement infringes upon the church’s rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment.
“This case is about fairness, plain and simple. Capitol Hill Baptist Church is right to ask that houses of worship receive the same treatment Mayor Bowser has given peaceful protestors under her coronavirus restrictions. The First Amendment protects both religious expression and peaceful demonstrations.
“If the mayor believes one group can assemble safely, there’s no legitimate health reason to curb the freedoms of another group whose rights are equally sacred in the eyes of the Constitution. I hope the mayor stops discriminating against religious groups immediately and embraces the rights of every house of worship in Washington, D.C. If the First Amendment gets trampled in our nation’s capital, it’s under threat everywhere,” said Kennedy.
The Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government exercises oversight over the District of Columbia and its federal funding.
The brief further argues that the District is intentionally treating houses of worship differently than other groups, and this violates the church’s Fifth Amendment right to due process by denying it equal protection under the law.
According to the brief, “the Mayor’s discrimination against houses of worship rests on a mistaken, and unconstitutional, premise that one particular exercise of free speech—a church’s desire to gather together and worship their God—is subordinate to other First Amendment-protected activities. This Court should enforce the First Amendment’s promise of free speech for all by issuing a preliminary injunction to prevent the Mayor and the District of Columbia from prohibiting outdoor religious services that adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols.”
The brief also underscores the right to peaceful protests, citing Justice Alito, who wrote, “Public protests, of course, are themselves protected by the First Amendment, and any efforts to restrict them would be subject to judicial review.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) led the brief. Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) also joined the brief.