DC Eases Church Restrictions After SCOTUS Ruling on Religious Freedoms

DC Eases Church Restrictions After SCOTUS Ruling on Religious Freedoms muriel browser speaks at press conference District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser (Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)

By Marisa Herman | Thursday, 17 December 2020 01:11 PM

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser loosened her restrictions on church gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious freedoms, the Washington Examiner reports.

As of Thursday, the city’s 50-person capacity limit is now a 25% church occupancy limit or a maximum of 250 people.

The archdiocese sued the city claiming Bowser’s capacity limits violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because businesses were not subject to the same restrictions. The archdiocese referenced the Supreme Court's decision in a recent case, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, as a precedent.

In that case, the Supreme Court gave New York Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues an injunction from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's orders, which limited attendance more for religious institutions than other businesses. The ruling has been cited in three other decisions in California, Colorado, and New Jersey, which excused churches from state-mandated orders and ordered lower courts to reexamine their cases, the outlet reports.

The briefs in the California, Colorado, and New Jersey cases all cite the New York ruling. Colorado opted to get rid of its worship limitations before filing to the court. New Jersey wrote that the restrictions must be kept in place for public health.

Christopher Ferrara, the attorney representing the houses of worship in the New Jersey case, told the Washington Examiner that the Supreme Court seems to support a widening regard for the pleas of churches.

“We are getting a very clear message from the Supreme Court that governments cannot set up any rules that apply to places of worship, or worship activities, but not to other, comparable secular activities," he said.

A Nevada appeals court judge used the Supreme Court ruling in a complaint raised by the Las Vegas megachurch Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain. Judge Milan Smith of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Gov. Steve Sisolak's 50-person attendance restrictions.

"Just like the New York restrictions, the directive treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services," Smith wrote of Sisolak's orders.