News & Politics

Archdiocese to DC: Treat Churches Like You Treat Restaurants

The archdiocese has sued the city, asking for attendance caps based on capacity rather than an arbitrary number.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception could fit the Statue of Liberty inside, the suit says. Photograph by faustasyan via iStock.

The Archdiocese of Washington sued Mayor Bowser and the District of Columbia government Friday, saying the city’s latest 50-person caps on attendance at worship services are “unscientific” and “discriminatory” and that they do not take into account individual churches’ capacity. The suit, which you can read below, seeks relief in the form of percentage-based caps on attendance instead. It also seeks damages and attorneys’ fees.

The suit contrasts caps on church attendance with the percentage-based caps applied to DC restaurants, which as of Monday are allowed to host diners indoors at 25 percent of their capacity. DC’s data on coronavirus outbreaks trace 21 incidents between August 1 and December 10 to restaurants and bars and two incidents to places of worship; the archdiocese says that since services started up again this past June, it “has demonstrated that people can worship God in a safe, responsible, and cooperative way,” that churches already offer virtual services, and that no outbreaks have been traced to masses in its houses of worship.

Half of the Catholic churches in DC can hold more than 500 worshipers, the suit says, noting that the Statue of Liberty could fit inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. “Yet under the Mayor’s orders, all of these churches are subject to the same cap of 50 people,” the suit says. It says the mayor’s order violates the First Amendment’s protections, as well as parts of the Fifth Amendment and the 2014 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It also cites a recent US Supreme Court decision that halted strict attendance limits in New York.

Neither Bowser nor DC Attorney General Karl Racine have yet replied to requests for comment about the suit, and Bowser has not yet commented on it during a marathon press conference on Monday. Former White House counsel Don McGahn is among the archdiocese’s attorneys, as are five other attorneys from Jones Day and four from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a DC-based nonprofit. Earlier in December, the Archbishop of San Francisco said, “Catholics and other responsible faith communities should not be lumped in with a few irresponsible bad actors,” and asked for relief from arbitrary caps, “lest Christians be deprived of celebrating the Christmas holy days in their churches, even if with limited numbers and other reasonable safety precautions.”

Archdiocese of Washington v Bowser by Washingtonian Magazine on Scribd

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.