Judge rules in favor of Washington D.C. Catholic churches; restrictions on physical services adjusted


On Thursday, March 25, an injunction was issued by a federal judge on the COVID-19 restrictions placed on Catholic churches in the city by the D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser. According to the ruling, the 25% capacity limit or 250 persons per service impinges on the fundamental rights to worship.

While passing his judgment, Judge Trevor N. McFadden stated the city has permitted residents to purchase alcohol or obtain restaurant takeout service as “essential” services. However, but they have not permitted churches to do the same even though there is freedom of religion in the U.S. Constitution.

The social distancing requirement in the city did not deter the judge from further overruling the restrictions placed on the church. He added that the church can have a capacity of 40% and still obey the COVID-19 rules. Likewise, he stated that the approach of the District in controlling churches shows the disregard for constitutional rights.

The injunction was sought by the Archdiocese of Washington ahead of next week. This is due to the fact that it is the Holy Week in the Catholic Church. It starts with Palm Sunday which includes the solemn services of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and ends with Easter Sunday.

The archdiocese said there are expectations of church members to attend services this year as it was not possible last year due to the COVID-19 lockdown. It also affirmed that the 25% capacity limit would have compelled many churches to send away some of its members.

According to the archdiocese, since early last summer, its churches began conducting masses. This was after the first wave of shutdowns eased and since then, there has not been a case of COVID-19 transmission blamed on attendance. Nevertheless, the city had claimed that some parishioners actually contacted the virus which they might have spread at Mass.

Furthermore, Washington argued that religious services could be a place where COVID-19 could spread easily. Hence, it imposed stiffer restrictions on houses of worship. For this reason, Mayor Bowser urged parishioners to adapt to the substitute of watching services on television or online. However, the archdiocese said it is not the same, especially as people watching at home cannot participate in the Holy Communion.

Judge McFadden said the fear of the city is valid and understandable, but a higher standard cannot be placed on churches than other entities without better reasons.

“The District would no doubt acknowledge that there is risk attendant in many activities it has classified as ‘essential,’ such as picking up a bottle of wine or takeout from a local restaurant. But the District has permitted essential businesses to stay open (often with less-onerous restrictions) because the public’s need for those things apparently outweighs the risk,” he added.

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