The suit charges that the city is violating the rights of the 650,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, which includes the District and its Maryland suburbs. It says the attendance limits violate the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and cites a Supreme Court ruling a few weeks ago that said a state violated the rights of some houses of worship by imposing mandatory attendance caps, regardless of the size of the facility.
The D.C. archdiocese’s filing late Friday also cited the caps on tighter new restrictions put in place last month as cases began to climb. In late November, the new rules said houses of worship can have only 50 attendees, no matter the size of the room. Half of the city’s Catholic parishes, the suit says, can seat more than 500 people.
The suit calls the caps “arbitrary” and “discriminatory, in that they single out religious worship.”
The city’s restrictions include multiple caps, including 12 youths in sporting events, regardless of the field size; a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor events of more than 25 people, no matter the size of the areas.
A text to spokespeople for the mayor sent late Friday was not immediately returned.
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, the firm representing the archdiocese, emailed responses to The Washington Post’s questions and said his clients read the recent Supreme Court ruling as applying to D.C.
“Treating some secular activities harshly does not excuse harsh treatment of worship,” Rassbach wrote.
Rassbach wrote that the new limits “prevent people from attending Mass at Christmas, one of the holiest days of the year for Christians.”
The city was sued this fall by Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a large evangelical congregation that wanted the right to meet outside in the city, with masks and social distancing. The city’s limit for outdoor gatherings was 50 people, but the church’s suit noted that Bowser had tolerated and even encouraged large anti-racism marches all summer.
A judge in October granted the church permission to meet outside, with safety restrictions. The church had twice filed requests with the city for waivers but they were not granted. It wasn’t clear whether the archdiocese sought a waiver.