WASHINGTON — Officials at the Museum of the Bible said Wednesday they are considering suing D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, over the city’s latest round of coronavirus restrictions, saying they prevent the museum’s employees from exercising their religious freedom and its visitors from possibly having a religious experience.
The plan to pursue legal action comes after an order by Bowser on Dec. 18 said museums and indoor dining in the District must close from Dec. 23 to Jan. 15, which includes the season of Advent and Christmas, a normally busy time for the museum. In a letter to Bowser, museum officials argue that the city is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by not allowing the museum to exercise religion.
The museum will close Wednesday to comply with the mayor’s orders while it explores legal options. Officials for the museum, which has nearly 400,000 square feet of space spread over seven floors, are asking that Bowser’s previous restrictions be reinstated, where 250 socially distanced people could be on one floor at a time.
A spokesman for Bowser did not respond to a request for comment early Wednesday.
“It’s our desire to be treated the same. We don’t want to create a havoc,” museum President Harry Hargrave said. “We want to stand up for our rights as well, and we feel like they’ve been violated.”
He said the museum changed its bylaws about a year ago to make it more explicit that it is a religious organization. While museum officials don’t intend to proselytize, he said, it “communicates the virtues of the Bible and what it means.”
The museum’s mission statement has shifted several times over the years. Before 2012, it had references to the Bible’s authority and reliability but removed them in 2013 to say: “We exist to invite all people to engage with the Bible[.] We invite Biblical exploration through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.”
Now its mission states, “Museum of the Bible is an innovative, global, educational institution whose purpose is to invite all people to engage with the transformative power of the Bible.” Its employees must sign a statement of faith.
The museum’s original funding came primarily from the evangelical Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores. The $500 million museum opened Nov. 17, 2017, with exhibitions tracing the cultural impact of the Bible. In its letter to the mayor, it cites the Greens’ famous 2014 Hobby Lobby case regarding contraception that went to the Supreme Court as an important case involving the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged Americans to stay home over the holiday season to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Museum officials said it would abide by the law, but the city’s regulations aren’t urging people to stay home, said Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom working on behalf of the museum. Tedesco said that Bowser’s new restrictions are undermined because the city still allows people to frequent places like grocery stores, big-box stores, financial institutions, auto repair shops and transportation services.
“A pandemic doesn’t cancel or put a pause on fundamental First Amendment freedoms,” Tedesco said. “They have to apply these orders in a way that’s consistent and protecting fundamental rights.”
Hargrave said that when it was told to shut down in March, it expected to be closed for about a two-week period but was closed until June, “a crippling experience” that resulted in 40 employees being furloughed.
The museum’s letter to the mayor says the new restrictions violate the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing a Supreme Court ruling from November that said the state of New York violated the rights of some houses of worship by imposing mandatory attendance caps.
The lawsuit comes as the city has settled with the archdiocese of Washington, which sued the District over new restrictions last month as coronavirus numbers climbed.
The city was also sued this fall by Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch that wanted the right to meet outside in the District, with masks and social distancing. A judge in October granted the church permission to meet outside.
No cases of coronavirus infection have been traced to the museum, Hargrave said. But December has brought some of the largest numbers of infections since the start of the pandemic.
Despite rising a rising number of cases, many major museums in New York City have remained open, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. But most other museums in the Washington area have already chosen to close. The American Alliance of Museums is not aware of any legal actions taken by museums against government restrictions across the country.
In Washington, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian in November closed the museums they had reopened due to the rising number of cases in the region.
The Phillips Collection, which reopened with limited hours Oct. 15, has closed as a result of the mayor’s restrictions. It will remain shuttered until February, when it plans to reopen with an exhibition celebrating its 100th anniversary.
The International Spy Museum will close at the end of Wednesday for three weeks because of the mayor’s orders. The museum had adapted its experience by creating linear paths through its exhibitions, providing styluses to use on its touch screens and increasing its cleaning procedures. But it will follow the city’s guidelines.
“We are watching everything the mayor says,” International Spy Museum spokeswoman Aliza Bran said. “Safety is a top priority for our staff, visitors and volunteers. We are happy to comply with what is going to be best for the community. We want to keep the community safe.”
Like other institutions, the museum has moved most of its programs online, broadening its audience and its donor pool.
Planet Word, the city’s newest museum, closed its facility in the restored Franklin School on K Street NW on Nov. 23, a month after its Oct. 22 grand opening.
“Our overriding consideration continues to be the safety of our community,” Planet Word founder Ann Friedman said. “We don’t yet have an opening date to announce, and a decision about when to reopen will be based on guidance from government and public health officials.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reopened Oct. 26 and closed again Nov. 23. During that month, it limited visitors to 250 a day.
“The health and safety of our visitors, staff, and volunteers are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s highest priority,” it stated. “The spread of the coronavirus is projected to continue to increase in the coming weeks, both locally and nationally.”
The Museum of the Bible implemented “COVID commandments” when it reopened in June, including more cleaning procedures. People above the age of 3 are required to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. Employees use masks and disposable gloves, and all staff and visitors have their temperature checked.
The museum says it uses staggered entry for social distancing and contact tracing to track any possible virus cases. It has closed its restaurant and interactive exhibits, including some children’s exhibits, though its cafe has been open.
Its total revenue for 2019 was $140.5 million, including $128.1 million in donations.
— — —
The Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.