A federal district judge ruled Thursday that Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 25 percent capacity or 250-person attendance cap on churches was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Judge Trevor N. McFadden, finding the District’s percentage restrictions on houses of worship at odds with 37 other states, ruled that Bowser and her government are enjoined from enforcing them. Until the order, the District of Columbia was the only jurisdiction in the United States with a numerical cap on houses of worship.
“Defendants, their agents, employees, and successors in office are hereby enjoined from enforcing their 250-person and 25 percent capacity restrictions as to houses of worship operated by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington (‘Archdiocese’) insofar as they require the Archdiocese to turn away individuals that it could admit while adhering to all the District’s and its own other pandemic-related limitations,” read McFadden’s order, which comes just days before the start of Holy Week.
#BREAKING: D.C’s discriminatory 250-person cap and 25% limit on church services are ending just in time for the Easter season. A federal district judge ruled that D.C.’s limits are unconstitutional & an outlier in comparison to the rest of the country. https://t.co/RRDdNKVlpG
— BECKET (@BECKETlaw) March 26, 2021
The ruling was in response to a lawsuit the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., filed against Bowser in December after she capped church attendance to 50 people regardless of building size. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in northeast D.C, the lawsuit noted, is the largest Catholic church in the United States — capable of holding two Statues of Liberty. In response to the lawsuit, Bowser raised the limit to 25 percent capacity or 250 people, whichever is fewer.
But imposing numerical caps on houses of worship is still hugely unfair. Half of the @WashArchdiocese churches can accommodate 500 or more people. The basilica by itself could house TWO Statues of Liberty. pic.twitter.com/rNXxKsu8OT
— BECKET (@BECKETlaw) March 26, 2021
In his extensive opinion, which repeatedly referenced the Supreme Court’s November ruling in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, McFadden noted the disparity of the District’s restrictions on churches compared to other establishments.
“Although the District’s capacity restrictions are not as harsh as New York’s were, they still discriminate against houses of worship,” he wrote, noting that big-box stores are not subject to a maximum-capacity limitation.
“In practical terms, this means that the Archdiocese’s churches must stop admitting parishioners once they become a quarter full, but Whole Foods or Target can take in as many customers as they wish while complying with social-distancing requirements,” he wrote.
“As the Archdiocese points out, what is important is that the District’s 25 percent and 250-person restrictions would not apply to its churches if they hawked wares instead of proclaimed the Gospel,” McFadden added.
McFadden’s order does not remove the city’s rules regarding mask wearing and social distancing.
A Trump-appointed judge, McFadden has also ruled in favor of D.C. churches before when he presided over the lawsuit that the prominent Capitol Hill Baptist Church brought against Bowser last October, which offered arguments similar to those the Archdiocese made. As The Daily Wire reported at the time:
“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,’” wrote Trump-appointed Judge Trevor McFadden, referencing a verse in the Book of Hebrews that commands Christians to gather together for worship.
According to the ruling, CHBC is allowed to resume outdoor gatherings with certain precautions.
As The Daily Wire reported, CHBC filed a lawsuit last month against Bowser in U.S. District Court alleging that the District government is showing preferential treatment in how it enforces the repeatedly extended lockdown orders.
“The Court determines that the Church is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions violate RFRA,” McFadden said. “The District’s current restrictions substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion. More, the District has failed to offer evidence at this stage showing that it has a compelling interest in preventing the Church from meeting outdoors with appropriate precautions, or that this prohibition is the least-restrictive means to achieve its interest. The Court will therefore grant the Church’s motion for injunctive relief.”
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