Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Sunday services can reconvene in D.C.

Religious Liberty | A judge overturns pandemic caps on worship
by Steve West
Posted 3/26/21, 05:13 pm

A federal judge late Thursday struck down the remaining numerical and percentage caps on worship in the U.S. capital.

U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden’s ruling ends the nation’s most onerous restrictions on worship services. McFadden, an appointee of President Donald Trump, concluded Mayor Muriel Bowser’s order limiting attendance at places of worship to 25 percent of capacity or 250 people, whichever is lower, violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The 1993 federal law requires the government to use the least restrictive means of burdening religious liberty and to show a compelling interest to do so.

The district argued its hands-off approach to regulating big box superstores and supermarkets during the pandemic was justified, while churches like the 3,000-person-capacity Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception could only allow 250 worshippers. McFadden said the order favored establishments that “hawked wares instead of proclaimed the gospel.”

“Restrictions on numbers of customers per overall floor space mean little for customers crowding in the milk-and-cheese aisle,” he noted. “In grocery stores, people cluster in long checkout lines. At big box stores, people may linger when deciding what to purchase.”

Over the course of 2020, Bowser flip-flopped on a response to the pandemic—first imposing severe restrictions, then loosening them only to tighten them again. Washington’s Capitol Hill Baptist in June met outside in a Virginia church parking lot after the district’s gathering restrictions limited outdoor and indoor gatherings to 100 people. In October, McFadden found they had the right to meet outdoors. The archbishop of Washington, representing the largest Catholic diocese in the United States, challenged the remaining restrictions just before Christmas.

On Palm Sunday, D.C. Christians will join those in 38 states that have no restrictions on worship other than social distancing and mask requirements, according to Becket religious liberty law firm. On March 12, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz became the latest state head to eliminate capacity restrictions.

Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

Read more from this writer