COVID Worship Restrictions: Federal Judge Rules D.C.’s Capacity Limit on Churches is Unconstitutional

A woman prays alone on Palm Sunday in the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Worcester, Mass., April 5, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A federal judge on Thursday ruled that Washington, D.C.’s coronavirus restrictions that limited occupancy at church services to 25 percent capacity or a 250-person cap were unconstitutional.

Judge Trevor N. McFadden found that the district’s rules made it an outlier in comparison to the rest of the country: 37 states have no numerical or percentage caps on attendance at houses of worship.

The ruling, which comes just over one week before Easter, allows D.C. houses of worship to host as many worshippers as can safely attend wearing masks and social distancing.

The decision comes after the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington sued Mayor Muriel Bowser in December over the district’s limits on houses of worship after the Supreme Court ruled in November that uniquely restrictive lockdown policies on churches were unconstitutional.

The Archdiocese requested that Bowser consider a less restrictive policy, but was only granted its request after filing a lawsuit. The mayor raised the cap from 50 to 250 people just before Christmas.

However, even as she did so, she expressed concern over large gatherings.

“The larger the gathering, the more the exposure,” she wrote in the December order that loosened the restrictions. “A recent lawsuit appears to insist on a constitutional right to hold indoor worship services of even a thousand persons or more at the largest facilities, which flies in the face of all scientific and medical advice and will doubtlessly put parishioners in harm’s way.”

Yet the 250-person cap still left a number of D.C. churches operating well below capacity, as a number of the buildings can accommodate 500 people or more.

The judge said that the district’s rules limited the Basilica to only “about eight percent of its capacity” a limit that would not apply “if they hawked wares instead of proclaimed the Gospel.” 

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