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Washington archdiocese sues the city over 50-person religious service limits

By Jean Lotus
The Washington Archdiocese sued the city of Washington, D.C., over mandatory 50-person caps on religious services ahead of the Christmas holidays. Catholics traditionally celebrate mass in large churches like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/51b860b70de1c8dc219442d5da8847f4/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
The Washington Archdiocese sued the city of Washington, D.C., over mandatory 50-person caps on religious services ahead of the Christmas holidays. Catholics traditionally celebrate mass in large churches like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 14 (UPI) -- The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C., sued the city over coronavirus public gathering restrictions that will limit the number of attendees at Christmas services.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington says the city's 50-person cap for attendees at religious services violates the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act rights of 650,000 Catholics in the city and five surrounding Maryland counties.

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The suit calls the caps on religious services "discriminatory" and "non-scientific" and cites the U.S. Supreme Court's November 5-4 ruling against Gov. Andrew Cuomo overturning mandatory occupancy limits on religious services in New York state. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the high court in November, was the decisive vote siding with other conservative judges on the bench.

The Washington Archdiocese also said most of the Roman Catholic churches in the D.C. area can hold more than 500 people, and can adequately provide social-distancing room for parishioners.

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The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States, can seat thousands and is big enough to fit the Statue of Liberty "with room to spare," the lawsuit says. "Yet under the Mayor's orders, all of these churches are subject to the same cap of 50 people."

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At other businesses, such as laundromats, nail salons, tattoo parlors, shops, gyms and libraries, the district imposes capacity-based limits rather than "hard caps," the suit said.

"If the Archdiocese were to fill its churches with library books, washing machines, exercise bikes, restaurant tables, or shopping stalls instead of pews, the District would allow many more people to enter and remain for an unlimited amount of time," archdiocese lawyers added.

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In March at the start of the pandemic, the archdiocese cancelled in-person masses and closed Catholic schools. Since the city has partially reopened, Catholic churches have been operating under the city's Phase 2 restrictions limiting religious gatherings to 100 people, the lawsuit said.

The suit is asking for expedited hearings in order to possibly get an exemption before Christmas Eve masses on Dec. 24.

The archdiocese hired former White House lawyer Don McGahn, who was fired by President Donald Trump for advising against prosecuting Hillary Clinton and James Comey, to sue mayor Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia, according to The National Law Journal.

On Dec. 3, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn California Gov. Gavin Newsom's pandemic orders imposing limits on religious services, calling the governor's rules "unconstitutional."

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