Federal court issues emergency injunction ahead of Holy Week services to increase COVID-related worship attendance caps in D.C.

by | Apr 2, 2021

Noting that the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., seats 3,000 worshippers and is “the largest Catholic Church in the United States,” a federal court has barred the District of Columbia from enforcing restrictions that would limit worship capacity to the lesser of 250 or 25%. Relying in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions, which halted worship service caps that failed to take into account the size of the facility, the court ruled that the plaintiff Archdiocese is entitled to the emergency relief it requested in advance of Holy Week.

Applying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the D.C. District Court determined that the restrictions in Washington are subject to the high bar of “strict scrutiny” under not only the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) but also under the First Amendment because they treat houses of worship differently than grocery and big box stores, rejecting the District’s argument that the threat of COVID-19 spread while sitting in a congregation is greater than that posed by shopping.

Government restrictions survive strict scrutiny if they are required to address a compelling government interest; in other words, that there is no less restrictive way for the government to adequately address the compelling interest. Here, the court agreed that combatting the virus is a compelling interest, but it disagreed with the District that the 25% or 250-person limit is necessary for that purpose. Here is an excerpt from the ruling:

The Court does not doubt the District’s representations about the threat of the virus—including the potential for new and dangerous variants. But this risk, though great, does not give the District carte blanche to restrict religious worship. Rather, it must show that its restrictions on houses of worship—and on the Archdiocese in particular—are narrowly tailored, or the least-restrictive means of achieving its interest


Diocese of Brooklyn held that, among the “many other less restrictive rules” available to the State in that case, an obvious alternative existed to a hard numerical cap: “the maximum attendance at a religious service could be tied to the size of the church”

The court emphasized that the Archdiocese had committed to social distancing guidelines required by the District, including a mask mandate and separation requirements between members of different households. The church also had implemented policies curtailing practices like singing that may increase the potential for spread of the virus. Because the church asserted it could allow up to 40% capacity while abiding by those restrictions, the court concluded, the 25% limitation was also unnecessary and thus failed the tests set forth by both the First Amendment and RFRA.

Importantly, the court noted that its ruling does not allow the church to completely ignore COVID-19 restrictions. While it barred enforcement of the 25% limitation, the safety protocols according to the church’s own position limits capacity to 40%, a modest increase from the District’s rules for most houses of worship. For the Basilica, it allows a greater increase, though still far from full capacity.

In granting emergency relief at this time, the court added that “Each time that the Archdiocese must turn away its faithful, it violates its sincere conviction that it must minister to the spiritual needs of the community by providing Mass. Especially during the upcoming Holy Week when attendance is expected to rise, this harm is imminent.”