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DC mayor loosens worship restrictions on churches after archdiocese files lawsuit

Washington Cathedral
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, February 20, 2016. |

Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an executive order to allow churches to have in-person services with up to 250 people days after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against the previous 50-person limit on houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new order went into effect on Thursday and allows churches to host up to 250 people or 25% of the building’s maximum capacity, whichever is less, The Washington Times reported.

“We are grateful that the new order will allow us to welcome more of the faithful to Church during the Christmas season and beyond,” the archdiocese said in a statement.

“We are continuing to evaluate the impact of these new rules, and it may still be necessary for the court to weigh in on the proper balance between public safety and the fundamental right to worship,” it added. “As always, we welcome continued dialogue with the Mayor’s Office to ensure that current and future restrictions are fairly applied and do not unduly burden the free exercise of religion.”

The day the new rules went into effect, Bowser called on Christians to celebrate Christmas virtually. 

“[T]his year is not the year to pack churches full of people,” she said at a press conference, according to the Times. “We are asking people — to the best extent they can — to celebrate virtually.”

Bowser also referred to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a similar case brought by the Brooklyn Diocese and Orthodox Jewish synagogues against New York’s COVID-19 restrictions.

“I have a responsibility to D.C. residents, to tell them what we know, and to — regardless of what courts say — to ask them to do what is good for the city, and for themselves, and for the family. So I have great faith in D.C. Catholics. I am one of them.”

She added that the new rules had not prompted the archdiocese to withdraw the case.

Bowser’s previous coronavirus order said worship services could not have more than 50 people even if the capacity of a church was 10,000.

The archdiocese’s lawsuit said they had “worked with the District of Columbia to protect public health, including by voluntarily suspending public Masses in March.”

Since in-person services resumed in June, the archdiocese “has demonstrated that people can worship God in a safe, responsible, and cooperative way,” the lawsuit continued. “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 suit added 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.”

In October, a federal judge ruled against Bowser’s restriction on outdoor church services of more than 100 people, allowing Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., to resume in-person outdoor services.

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