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DC backs down over Mass limits after archdiocese sues

shutterstock 648485155 Office of the mayor of Washington, D.C. / Andrew Cline/Shutterstock

The District of Columbia has changed course and will now allow up to 250 people to attend religious services. The previous limit was 50, which was challenged in court by the Archdiocese of Washington. 

“In order to resolve litigation, this Order repeals the numeric cap of fifty (50) persons on gathering at houses of worship and allows physically large facilities to accommodate more worshippers based on their overall capacity, up to a maximum of of two hundred fifty (250) persons,” said an order from DC Mayor Muriel Bowser issued on December 16, 2020. 

The total limit of 250 includes clergy, worshippers, and staff. Previously, churches of any size were allowed to have a total capacity of 50. This included the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America, which has a normal capacity of approximately 10,000. 

The new order also sets a maximum limit of 25% capacity or 250 persons for gyms, skate parks, bowling alleys, and skating rinks, restaurants, and other retail businesses. 

The Archdiocese of Washington’s suit complained that churches were given additional restrictions on capacity compared to retail establishments, including restaurants. In the order, Bowser states that the largest restaurant in DC would have a capacity of 250 people at 25% capacity. 

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“Our review indicates that the maximum number of persons at the largest restaurant, based on twenty-five percent (25%) of their Certificates of Occupancy, is approximately two hundred fifty (persons),” says the order. “This Order ensures parity in terms of capacity limits--both as a percentage and a cap on attendance--among more activities.” 

Although the rule change by the District substantially addresses the legal complaint by the Archdiocese of Washington, cases pending from churches in other jurisdictions where similar rule changes were made have proceeded. 

The Supreme Court accepted a church’s appeal against coronavirus restrictions in the state of Colorado on Tuesday, even after the governor reclassified churches to stop the rules applying. 

High Plains Harvest Church in Eaton, Colorado, had appealed to the Supreme Court for relief from the state’s capacity limits on indoor religious services during the pandemic. Colorado had limited attendance at houses of worship to just 50 people, in certain areas where the virus was spreading acutely.

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis (D) asked the Supreme Court to drop the case, as the restrictions no longer applied, and cited the Supreme Court’s Nov. 25 ruling in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, where the court granted relief for Catholic churches and Orthodox Jewish synagogues from the state’s capacity limits for indoor religious services.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court still accepted the church’s appeal for relief, and subsequently vacated an Aug. 10 district court decision against the church.

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The court then sent the case back to the lower courts for reconsideration in light of the Brooklyn Diocese case.

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