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DC Mayor Muriel BowserPool / Getty

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 18, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Democrat Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C. walked back some of the city’s extreme restrictions on churches Wednesday, following legal action by the Archdiocese of Washington. 

The Archdiocese of Washington sued D.C. last week over a hard cap of 50 people for church services, which the mayor imposed the day before Thanksgiving. She repealed the limit in a new order that entered into effect Thursday morning, authorizing up to 250 churchgoers at a time. 

“In order to resolve litigation, this Order repeals the numeric cap of fifty (50) persons on gatherings at houses of worship and allows physically large facilities to accommodate more worshippers based on their overall capacity, up to a maximum of two hundred fifty (250) persons,” the order states. 

The lawsuit submitted on behalf of the archdiocese by Becket Law (formerly the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty) had argued that the policy discriminated against Catholics and targeted “religious worship as a disfavored activity.” The suit notes there being “no hard cap on the number of people who can dine indoors in restaurants,” for example.

Under the previous restrictions, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception, the largest religious edifice in North America, could only reach about 2 percent of its roughly 3,000-person capacity. The Becket Fund noted that “filling it with exercise machines instead of pews would allow more than 600 people to attend.” 

Mayor Bowser’s rule shift follows Supreme Court decisions in November that established a judicial precedent against disproportionate worship bans. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court unanimously sided with a Nevada church, overturning numerical caps for church services that the state’s Democratic governor had implemented. Similar rulings have been handed down in Colorado and California this month.

Even as D.C. loosened attendance restrictions, however, the city government reaffirmed several other dictates saddling local Christian communities. Wednesday’s order upholds the requirement of a “reservation system or some means of ensuring that there will not be crowding inside or outside the facility.” 

Churches additionally “must cooperate in contact tracing if contacted by” the D.C. health department, D.C. contact tracers, or contact tracers or officials from any other health department, according to the order. Further demands cited as part of a “non exclusive” list include “mandatory masking” and “wellness checks.”

Moreover, the modest, newly-regained religious freedoms in D.C. only pertain to Masses or “sacramental services.”

“All other activities such as religious education classes, youth events, support groups,” “must follow gathering size limitations” of 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors, the mayor’s order emphasizes. Weddings and funerals will face the same restrictions, depending on whether or not they meet the city’s definition of “core religious services.”

The order also slams the archdiocese for “insist[ing] on a constitutional right to hold indoor worship services,” which “flies in the face of all scientific and medical advice and will doubtlessly put parishioners in harm’s way.” 

In fact, authorities have linked harsh COVID-19 measures to an unprecedented number of D.C.-area overdose deaths that increasingly rivals mortality from the virus itself. Faced with the highest spike in drug fatalities in the district’s history, Mayor Bowser signed off on a permanent expansion of alcohol sales hours in August, after raising taxes on alcohol to offset lockdown costs.

Catholic Masses, which a recent survey suggests help provide substantial mental health benefits during the COVID-19 crisis, have yet to be tied to any confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Becket. 

In a public statement released yesterday, the Archdiocese of Washington, which is led by liberal Cardinal Wilton Gregory, reported being “grateful” for the new order, while leaving the door open to continued litigation.