The museum closed Wednesday to comply with the mayor’s orders while officials explored legal options. They are asking that Bowser’s previous restrictions be reinstated, where 250 socially distanced people could be on one floor at a time. The museum has nearly 400,000 square feet of space spread over seven floors.
A spokesman for Bowser did not respond to a request for comment early Wednesday.
“It’s our desire to be treated the same. We don’t want to create a havoc,” said museum president Harry Hargrave. “We want to stand up for our rights as well, and we feel like they’ve been violated.”
He said the museum changed its bylaws about a year ago to make it more explicit that it is a religious organization. While museum officials don’t intend to proselytize, he said, it “communicates the virtues of the Bible and what it means.”
The museum’s mission statement has shifted several times over the years. Before 2012, it had references to the Bible’s authority and reliability but removed them in 2013 to say: “We exist to invite all people to engage with the Bible[.] We invite Biblical exploration through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.”
Now its mission states, “Museum of the Bible is an innovative, global, educational institution whose purpose is to invite all people to engage with the transformative power of the Bible.” Its board and executive team must sign a statement of faith.
The museum’s original funding came primarily from the evangelical Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores. The $500 million museum opened Nov. 17, 2017, with exhibitions tracing the cultural impact of the Bible. In its letter to the mayor, it cites the Greens’ famous 2014 Hobby Lobby case regarding contraception that went to the Supreme Court as an important case involving the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged Americans to stay home over the holiday season to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Museum officials said it would abide by the law, but the city’s regulations aren’t urging people to stay home, said Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom working on behalf of the museum. Tedesco said that Bowser’s new restrictions are undermined because the city still allows people to frequent places such as grocery stores, big-box stores, financial institutions, auto repair shops and transportation services.
“A pandemic doesn’t cancel or put a pause on fundamental First Amendment freedoms,” Tedesco said. “They have to apply these orders in a way that’s consistent and protecting fundamental rights.”
The American Alliance of Museums is not aware of any legal actions taken by museums against government restrictions across the country.
Hargrave said that being shut down from March until June was “a crippling experience” that resulted in 40 employees being furloughed.
The museum’s most recent tax returns, for the year that ended June 30, 2019, showed revenues of $140.5 million, including $128 million in donations, and expenses of $78.8 million. One of the largest non-federal museums, it ended the year with a $61.7 million surplus, the tax documents show.
The museum’s letter to the mayor says the new restrictions violate the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing a Supreme Court ruling from November that said the state of New York violated the rights of some houses of worship by imposing mandatory attendance caps.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a city settlement with the archdiocese of Washington, which sued the District over new restrictions last month as coronavirus numbers climbed.
The city was also sued this fall by Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch that wanted the right to meet outside in the District, with masks and social distancing. A judge in October granted the church’s request.
No cases of coronavirus infection have been traced to the museum, Hargrave said.
As December has brought some of the largest numbers of infections since the start of the pandemic, many major museums in New York City have remained open, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. But most museums in the Washington area have already chosen to close.
The National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian in November closed the museums they had reopened, due to the rising number of cases in the region.
The Phillips Collection, which reopened with limited hours Oct. 15, has closed as a result of the mayor’s restrictions. It will remain shuttered until February, when it plans to reopen with an exhibition celebrating its 100th anniversary.
The International Spy Museum will close at the end of Wednesday for three weeks because of the mayor’s orders. The museum had adapted its experience by creating linear paths through its exhibitions, providing styluses to use on its touch screens and increasing its cleaning procedures. But it will follow the city’s guidelines.
“We are watching everything the mayor says,” International Spy Museum spokeswoman Aliza Bran said. “Safety is a top priority for our staff, visitors and volunteers. We are happy to comply with what is going to be best for the community. We want to keep the community safe.”
Like other institutions, the museum has moved most of its programs online, broadening its audience and its donor pool.
Planet Word, the city’s newest museum, closed its facility in the restored Franklin School on K Street NW on Nov. 23, a month after its Oct. 22 grand opening.
“Our overriding consideration continues to be the safety of our community,” Planet Word founder Ann Friedman said. “We don’t yet have an opening date to announce, and a decision about when to reopen will be based on guidance from government and public health officials.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reopened Oct. 26 and closed again Nov. 23. During that month, it limited visitors to 250 a day.
“The health and safety of our visitors, staff, and volunteers are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s highest priority,” it stated. “The spread of the coronavirus is projected to continue to increase in the coming weeks, both locally and nationally.”
The Museum of the Bible implemented “covid commandments” when it reopened in June, including more cleaning procedures. People above the age of 3 are required to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. Employees use masks and disposable gloves, and all staff and visitors have their temperature checked.
The museum says it uses staggered entry for social distancing and contact tracing to track any possible virus cases. It has closed its restaurant and interactive exhibits, including some children’s exhibits, though its cafe has been open.
Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.