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Catholic Church, DC mayor agree on eased attendance limits for worship services

Catholic Church, DC mayor agree on eased attendance limits for worship services
© Bonnie Cash

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and D.C. Mayor Muriel BowserMuriel BowserInauguration parties lose the glitz and glamour in 2021 Biden's inauguration unprecedented in US history Sunday shows - Capital locked down ahead of Biden's inauguration MORE (D) on Tuesday reached a deal over indoor attendance limits placed on worship services in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

The terms of the agreement largely reflected a relaxed set of restrictions that Bowser put in place last week. Those eased limits came after the archdiocese alleged in a lawsuit that the District’s attendance caps on places of worship ran afoul of constitutional religious protections.

During a Tuesday hearing before a federal judge in Washington, an attorney for the archdiocese, Anthony Dick of the law firm Jones Day, referred to the deal as a “Christmas truce.”

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Under the agreement, houses of worship in the nation's capital can admit up to 25 percent of their capacity or up to 250 people — whichever is smaller. Before the church’s lawsuit, houses of worship in the District were limited to the smaller of a 50 person cap or a 50 percent capacity limit.

The District also agreed that attendance limits on churches, mosques and synagogues would not necessarily be lowered, even as the city moves to impose tighter restrictions on restaurants and other establishments. The District will provide 36 hours advance notice of any forthcoming changes to rules surrounding places of worship.

Attorneys for the parties are expected to file a written version of the agreement to U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden by Wednesday, and both parties will provide periodic status updates to the court.

The religious accommodation comes as D.C. is set to tighten restrictions on restaurants, museums and libraries amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Bowser announced the tougher measures on Friday while noting a rise in the rates of infections and hospitalizations.

After Tuesday’s hearing, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said the relaxed attendance caps at places of worship should not be seen as a substitute for public health guidance.

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“While some churches may now allow up to 250 worshippers to attend services,” he said in a statement, “I strongly encourage residents to continue following the guidance of medical and public health experts and help stop the spread of COVID-19: stay home whenever possible, and avoid spending time indoors with people outside your household.”

The agreement Tuesday comes after the Supreme Court recently sided in several disputes with religious challengers to health restrictions. The legal rationale behind those rulings is that limits on gatherings at houses of worship cannot be more restrictive than those placed on businesses that governments have deemed essential.

Lindsay Wiley, a law professor at American University and an expert on public health law, said the 6-3 conservative majority's recent line of cases offered an "expansive new interpretation of what constitutes religious discrimination."

Critics say the high court's recent rulings favoring religious carve-outs point to an alarming trend of the conservative justices substituting their own judgment for that of public health experts amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Updated at 4:43 p.m.