Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser has apparently seen the First Amendment handwriting on the wall and revised her unequal capacity restrictions imposed on worship services due to COVID-19 as compared to secular businesses and facilities in the nation’s capital. And the lawsuit filed last week by the Archdiocese of Washington alleging that the mayor’s restrictions treated churches as second-class citizens of the city certainly looked more promising due to recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court in similar cases around the county.

In either event, the mayor issued a new rule late on December 16, just in time for the upcoming Christmas holy days. The new rule allows 25% capacity for restaurants as well as for houses of worship, which the city then caps at 250 people for the largest such facilities. The old rule set a maximum capacity on churches of 50 worshippers, with no such cap imposed on restaurants and other businesses.

“In order to resolve the litigation,” the mayor’s new order reads, “this Order repeals the numeric cap of fifty (50) persons on gatherings at houses of worship and allows physically large facilities to accommodate more worshippers based on their overall capacity, up to a maximum of two hundred fifty (250) persons.

“The [previous order] is modified to provide that houses of worship may admit no more than twenty-five percent (25%) of capacity as specified in their Certificate of Occupancy for the room or area where worship services will be held, or two hundred fifty (250) persons, whichever is fewer.”

The new order continues to encourage churches to conduct services via methods other than in-person, and also continues the previous capacity restrictions on non-worship activities such as weddings, baptisms, wakes, memorial services and the like. Those activities are still limited to 10 people indoors or 25 people outdoors.

The new 25% capacity rule applies to a variety of businesses and facilities as well as churches and is, according to the order, an acknowledgment that the new set of rules is designed to allow “parity.”

The Archdiocese issued a statement reacting to the mayor’s new rules.

“Last night, the Mayor issued a new Executive Order lifting the 50-person cap on religious services in the District of Columbia and replacing it with new restrictions on religious worship,” the statement reads. “We are grateful that the new order will allow us to welcome more of the faithful to Church during the Christmas season and beyond. 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. 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 archdiocese has asked a federal court for a temporary restraining order against the mayor’s original order. It’s unclear at the moment as to how the new order will impact the lawsuit.

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