Federal Court Sides with D.C. Archdiocese on Church Capacity Limits

The court’s order means that houses of worship in D.C. are allowed to admit as many people inside as they can, in line with other public health regulations such as social-distancing.

St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, D.C. / Marcos Carvalho/Shutterstock
St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, D.C. / Marcos Carvalho/Shutterstock (photo: Marcos Carvalho / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — A federal judge sided with the Archdiocese of Washington on Thursday in its lawsuit against Washington, D.C. over church capacity restrictions. 

In an order published late Thursday evening, Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted an injunction which prevented the city from enforcing its pandemic-related capacity limits on churches. The city’s restrictions amounted to 25% indoor capacity for churches, with a hard limit of 250 people total.

“Defendants, their agents, employees, and successors in office are hereby enjoined from enforcing their 250-person and 25 percent capacity restrictions as to houses of worship operated by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington (“Archdiocese”) insofar as they require the Archdiocese to turn away individuals that it could admit while adhering to all the District’s and its own other pandemic-related limitations,” said the order. 

The order came three days before Holy Week will begin on Palm Sunday.

In D.C., houses of worship were officially limited to a maximum of 250 people inside, regardless of their official capacity. This included the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest church in North America which has a total capacity of around 6,000 people for its upper church.

The court’s order means that houses of worship in D.C. are allowed to admit as many people inside as they can, in line with other public health regulations such as social-distancing. 

In his opinion, McFadden noted that the Washington’s limits on houses of worship were discriminatory when compared to how secular institutions were treated. 

“Although the District’s capacity restrictions are not as harsh as New York’s were, they still discriminate against houses of worship,” said McFadden. He pointed out that while churches in D.C. were limited to a maximum of 250 persons, big-box stores “are subject to no maximum-capacity limitations.” 

These stores “need only ‘limit occupancy to the extent necessary for safety’ and ‘make plans that provide for safe social distancing between persons’,” he wrote.

“In practical terms, this means that the Archdiocese’s churches must stop admitting parishioners once they become a quarter full, but Whole Foods or Target can take in as many customers as they wish while complying with social-distancing requirements,” he wrote. 

“As the Archdiocese points out, what is important is that the District’s 25 percent and 250-person restrictions would not apply to its churches if they hawked wares instead of proclaimed the Gospel,” said McFadden. 

The order does not impact any of the city’s other coronavirus restrictions for indoor gatherings. Those attending Masses will still be required to wear masks and to be socially-distanced per city guidelines. 

At the time of the order, none of the 50 states had a numerical cap on attendance at houses of worship. Now, D.C. along with 37 states have neither a numerical nor a percentage capacity limit on houses of worship.

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