A Baptist congregation in Washington, D.C., may meet for services despite a public health order restricting large gatherings, a federal court has ruled.

Under the city’s order, gatherings of more than 100 people of all types are banned. Capitol Hill Baptist Church sued over the order. The church had been meeting outside in Virginia, but its leaders wanted to go back to D.C. for outdoor services.

U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden ruled in favor of the church, declaring that the city was in violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He ruled that the congregation could meet as long as congregants wore masks and engaged in social distancing. He also said his ruling applied only to this church.

D.C. officials argued that the church had other options, such as online services or broadcasting over the radio. McFadden said that was not good enough.

“[T]he District misses the point,” he wrote. “It ignores the Church’s sincerely held (and undisputed) belief about the theological importance of gathering in person as a full congregation. … 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.’ … It is for the Church, not the District or this Court, to define for itself the meaning of ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.’” (Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser)

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