Mark Dever’s Capitol Hill Baptist Sues to Not Forsake the Assembly

Written by on September 24, 2020

Capitol Hill Baptist Church this week became the first house of worship to file suit against Washington, DC, for its ongoing restrictions on religious gatherings meeting indoors or outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Post reported.

The move by Capitol Hill Baptist—a 1,000-person congregation led by Mark Dever, the founder of the 9Marks church network—resembles arguments for equal treatment and First Amendment rights launched by churches in Nevada and California amid COVID-19 shutdowns. However, the DC congregation’s legal fight is uniquely tied to its theological beliefs around how a church should gather.

Dever has long resisted multi-site, multi-service models of church, though they are very popular among fellow Southern Baptists. The DC Baptist church does not stream services online, and hasn’t made an exception to that rule during the pandemic.

As noted in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, “Gathering as one church in a single worship service is an essential component of [Capitol Hill Baptist]’s exercise of religion.”

In the current phase, the District’s coronavirus precautions limit socially distanced indoor or outdoor gatherings to 100 people or half of a building’s capacity, whichever is fewer.

The city has, however, let non-religious groups gather far beyond the COVID-19 limits. The suit points out that the mayor allowed outdoor rallies that numbered in the thousands over the summer and even attended some of these events.

The church supports the mayor’s participation, but argues that religious gatherings should not be treated differently. According to the lawsuit, “the First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship.”

Capitol Hill Baptist canceled services from mid-March through early June. At that point it began meeting in a field beside a fellow Baptist congregation in Virginia.

“I might not be feeling as compliant as I am if Virginia weren’t just across the river with all their freedoms,” Dever said in late June, discussing the decision by John MacArthur to defy California’s restrictions. “We’ve been able to have hundreds of our members gather legally, and we’ve done it with social distancing—which I think the governor of Virginia is requesting—and with masks—which I don’t think is in the rules but we’re doing it anyway for an abundance of caution.”

Now the church wants the option to meet in outdoor venues in DC, the Post reported. The mayor’s office has not yet responded to a request sent by CT for comment on the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Capitol Hill Baptist, which has not publicly addressed the suit, posted a clip about the importance of church gatherings.

“Ultimately, the church is not something we want to be in as a building,” said Dever, speaking from the empty sanctuary back in the spring. “It’s a people we want to be with. That’s why we Christians always gather, so that we can be with the people of God and do the things that Jesus has called us to do.”

Located just blocks from the US Capitol and Supreme Court in DC, Capitol Hill Baptist submitted a request for a waiver to the requirements in June and again in September, citing its theological convictions requiring in-person assembly, but the mayor’s office didn’t respond.

As legal scholars Thomas Berg and Shawna Kosel wrote for CT earlier in the pandemic:

… cities nationwide permitted large, crowded protests, complete with chanting and singing, exceeding the limits that COVID orders generally place on “mass gatherings,” The protests’ message challenging racism and police brutality is crucial—and often religious. But regulation must rest on the activity’s riskiness, not on the content of its message.

Admittedly, the protests were outside, and their grassroots nature would’ve made stopping them impossible. But congregations have already begun to argue that declining to enforce health rules strictly to stop protests means you cannot invoke them strictly to stop worship.

Besides guidance for socially distanced gatherings with fewer than 100 people, DC encourages churches to “continue providing virtual services as everyone is safer at home.”

On top of 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, the book from which the ministry gets its name, Dever is the author of a stack of books about church life: The Deliberate Church, The Compelling Community, What Is a Healthy Church?, and The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, where he writes that a “biblically ordered church regularly gathers the whole congregation” because “without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically ordered church.”

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