Catholic Church sues DC mayor over ‘illegal’ coronavirus restrictions as Christmas approaches

All Patriot NewsDecember 12, 202011min

The Catholic Church in the nation’s capital filed a federal lawsuit against Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on Friday evening.

The lawsuit argued the 50-person limits in any house of worship constitute “arbitrary” coronavirus restrictions. The suit alleged that the rules “violate the rights of more than 650,000 D.C.-area Catholics, who — at the end of this most difficult year — now face the chilling prospect of being told that there is no room for them at the Church this Christmas.”

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, represented in part by the religious liberty-focused Becket firm, filed a 31-page lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against Bowser herself and the district.

“From the start of the pandemic, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington has worked with the District of Columbia to protect public health, including by voluntarily suspending public Masses in March. Since Mass resumed in June, the Archdiocese has demonstrated that people can worship God in a safe, responsible, and cooperative way. This has led to an exemplary safety record: thousands of Masses, with zero known COVID outbreaks linked to the Mass,” the lawsuit states. “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 Washington court filing pointed to a successful lawsuit by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Orthodox Jewish Agudath Israel of America in New York City, where the Supreme Court shot down 10- and 25-person limits imposed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a 5-4 decision in late November.

“Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID–19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services,” the Supreme Court ruled. “Among other things, the maximum attendance at a religious service could be tied to the size of the church or synagogue.”

Cuomo lamented that ruling, saying, “You have a different court, and I think that was the statement that the court was making. We know who he appointed to the court. We know their ideology.”

It was Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett who rejected Cuomo’s rules.

“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the Supreme Court said. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

The Catholic Church said Friday that the Supreme Court ruling “should have been reason enough for the District to abandon its illegal treatment of safe and responsible worship, but since the District has refused and Christmas is coming, the Archdiocese now has no choice but to seek judicial relief.”

The lawsuit cited the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that “the District’s arbitrary, unscientific, and discriminatory treatment of religious worship is illegal” and that “particularly after Diocese of Brooklyn identified occupancy-based limits as a less restrictive means of protecting public health than numeric caps, the District’s hard caps on numbers of worshippers cannot withstand scrutiny.”

The archdiocese asked for a federal court injunction “that allows them sufficient time before Christmas Eve to allow the Archdiocese to plan and celebrate Mass in accordance with percentage-based limits rather than a 50-person cap” and contended that “the Constitution, federal law, and common sense require no less.”

The lawsuit continued: “These restrictions are unscientific, in that they bear no relation to either the size of the building or the safety of the activity. These restrictions are discriminatory, in that they single out religious worship as a disfavored activity, even though it has been proven safer than many other activities the District favors.”

The complaint pointed out that half of the Catholic churches in Washington, D.C., can accommodate 500 or more worshipers, with St. Matthew’s Cathedral able to accommodate 1,000 and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is the largest Catholic Church in the United States, able to fit multiple thousands — “yet under the Mayor’s orders, all of these churches are subject to the same cap of 50 people.”

Bowser issued executive orders in March, June, and November establishing caps on the number of people who can gather in a house of worship. Johns Hopkins University states that 294,715 people in the U.S. have died from the coronavirus as of Friday night.

“The number of people inside houses of worship indoors at any one time is reduced from 100 people to 50 people,” Bowser’s most recent Nov. 23 order states. “The maximum allowable capacity is 50{3c673d3ab703a335aa2de9fb6bc2c1f473b2ba555cfc5936ab3ce7b22bef001e}. The lower of the two numbers is the maximum capacity at any one time indoors for houses of worship. Virtual services, rather than in-person services, continue to be encouraged.”

The lawsuit pointed out the Catholic Catechism states that “the Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life” and that Sunday Mass is “the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.”

The federal complaint also argued that “if the Archdiocese were to fill its churches with library books, washing machines, exercise bikes, restaurant tables, or shopping stalls instead of pews, the District would allow many more people to enter and remain for an unlimited amount of time” and “that is because 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.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory said Friday that “we just think we should not be treated any differently, and certainly not unfairly, in comparison to other public places for attendance.”

Becket’s executive director, Montse Alvarado, emphasized that “the Supreme Court recently affirmed that houses of worship can’t be treated differently than gyms and indoor dining, and that’s exactly what the District is going here — treating the Archdiocese differently than secular businesses.”

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