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Washington Archdiocese sues District of Columbia over 50-person cap


Jeffrey Bruno

John Burger - published on 12/15/20

A "chilling prospect" for area's Catholics: "there is no room for you in church this Christmas."

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception can comfortably seat about 10,000 people. But according to regulations issued by the City of Washington, D.C., meant to protect people from the spread of COVID-19, the church may have only 50 people in it at any given time. 

Granted, the basilica is an outsized exception, but there are other churches in D.C. that have a seating capacity that exceeds 1,000. And half of the city’s Catholic churches seat more than 500 people.

Still, only 50 people are allowed inside at a time. 

Last Friday, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, filed a lawsuit against the Mayor of Washington, Muriel E. Bowser, asking her to lift that restriction — and to do so in time for Christmas. 

The 50-person cap “violate(s) the rights of more than 650,000 D.C.-area Catholics, who — at the end of this most difficult year — now face the chilling prospect of being told that there is no room for them at the church this Christmas,” the lawsuit charges. 

The archdiocese asked for a federal court injunction “that allows them sufficient time before Christmas Eve to allow the archdiocese to plan and celebrate Mass in accordance with percentage-based limits rather than a 50-person cap.”

“The Constitution, federal law, and common sense require no less,” said the lawsuit, filed by Becket, a religious liberty law firm. The suit charges that D.C.’s restrictions violate the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

It cites a Supreme Court ruling a few weeks ago that said the State of New York violated the rights of Catholic and Jewish houses of worship in Brooklyn by imposing mandatory attendance caps, regardless of the seating capacity.

If church were a gym

The Archdiocese of Washington maintains that the caps are “arbitrary” and “discriminatory, in that they single out religious worship.”

“If the Archdiocese were to fill its churches with library books, washing machines, exercise bikes, restaurant tables, or shopping stalls instead of pews, the District would allow many more people to enter and remain for an unlimited amount of time,” the suit charges, pointing out that for public libraries, laundromats, retail stores, restaurants, tattoo parlors, nail salons, fitness centers, and many other establishments, the District imposes capacity-based limits, rather than hard caps.

“From the start of the pandemic, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington has worked with the District of Columbia to protect public health, including by voluntarily suspending public Masses in March,” according to the lawsuit. “Since Mass resumed in June, the archdiocese has demonstrated that people can worship God in a safe, responsible, and cooperative way. This has led to an exemplary safety record: thousands of Masses, with zero known COVID outbreaks linked to the Mass. Yet as Christmas fast approaches, the District has imposed arbitrary 50-person caps on Mass attendance — even for masked, socially-distant services, and even when those services are held in churches that can in normal times host over a thousand people.”

The Washington Examiner said that Bowser issued executive orders in March, June, and November establishing caps on the number of people who can gather in a house of worship.

“The number of people inside houses of worship indoors at any one time is reduced from 100 people to 50 people,” Bowser’s most recent Nov. 23 order states. “The maximum allowable capacity is 50%. The lower of the two numbers is the maximum capacity at any one time indoors for houses of worship. Virtual services, rather than in-person services, continue to be encouraged.” 

CoronavirusReligious Freedom
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