Lawsuit Prompts DC Mayor To Loosen COVID Restrictions On Churches

( A lawsuit from the Archdiocese of Washington has done its job.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has decided to loosen the city’s coronavirus restrictions that were in place on houses of worship. On Wednesday, the mayor announced the new order, which increases the indoor capacity allowed at houses of worship to either 25% of capacity or 250 people, whichever is fewer.

Under her previous order, only 50 people could attend an indoor service at a house of worship.

The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, was challenging Bowser’s unequal treatment. Now, the new order applies the same rules to houses of worship as it does to non-essential and essential businesses — at 25% of capacity.

Bowser’s order reads:

“The lawsuit argues that houses of worship and restaurants should be treated the same, or the same as other activities where large gathering limits are not imposed.

The lawsuit was filed on December 11 with the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. It was filed against the mayor, arguing that her previous orders were “unscientific” and “discriminatory.”

As the Becket Fund’s vice president and executive director, Montse Alvarado, said:

“This is about science and common sense. The archdiocese has shown that they can have mass and be socially distanced … so really what this boils down to is discrimination on the part of the city. They are choosing to treat the religious entities different from restaurants where you can sit down for 90 minutes with no masks or tattoo parlors or liquor stores.”

Further, Bowser’s previous order was flying in the face of rulings by the Supreme Court. In November, the high court ruled against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions. That suit was being brought by the Brooklyn Diocese and Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

The Supreme Court also recently handed temporary victories to religious organizations in New Jersey and Colorado who were challenging their states’ coronavirus restrictions.

The High Plains Harvest Church in Colorado was seeking an injunction on the state’s restrictions on the number of people who could attend indoor services. Those restrictions had already been lifted by the time the Supreme Court heard the case, but the justices ruled in favor of the church anyway.

In fact, Colorado changed its rules after the Supreme Court case regarding Brooklyn’s challenges.

The New Jersey case was brought by Rabbie Yisrael Knopfler and the Reverend Kevin Robinson. In that case, the Supreme Court vacated a ruling by the District Court that was handed down in October. The District Court must not reconsider the case in light of the New York ruling, the Supreme Court decided.

As the court ruled:

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Back in D.C., Alvarado outlined the absurdity of the mayor’s previous restrictions. He said it was “very unreasonable to have a cap” of only 50 people who could attend the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which has a capacity upward of 10,000 people.