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Lawsuit settlement modifies rules for Capitol Hill demonstrations

Also limits when members of Congress are entitled to exemptions from regulations

Rep. Cori Bush speaks to supporters about an eviction moratorium on the House steps of the Capitol in August 2021. She is flanked by, from left, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mondaire Jones, Jimmy Gomez and Al Green.
Rep. Cori Bush speaks to supporters about an eviction moratorium on the House steps of the Capitol in August 2021. She is flanked by, from left, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mondaire Jones, Jimmy Gomez and Al Green. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A lawsuit filed by a Presbyterian minister who was denied permission to hold a prayer vigil on the West Front of the Capitol several months after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has resulted in loosened rules around permits for demonstrations on the campus and limited the exemptions that lawmakers are afforded regarding protests.

A settlement in the case increases the number of people allowed to demonstrate without a permit to 30, up from 19. And the minimum time between a permit application and the proposed demonstration has been reduced from 10 business days to five.

The settlement also limits when members of Congress are entitled to exemptions from the Capitol Police Board’s traffic regulations on demonstrations. Those exemptions apply only if they meet all three of the following conditions: the member is engaging in that activity in their official capacity; the activity is sponsored or organized by the lawmaker; and, if people other than the member are participating, the member must be present “at all times” for the exemption to last.

The Capitol Police Board, which was sued by Rev. Patrick Mahoney in August 2021, was ordered to change its traffic regulations for the Capitol complex in a filing dated Dec. 28, 2023. The board did not respond to a request for comment.

The Center for American Liberty, in a news release about the settlement, said the era of lawmaker friends and allies flouting permit requirements now ends.

“Reverend Mahoney’s settlement is a triumph for the first amendment and equal protection, assuring that citizens enjoying their first amendment rights will be treated no differently than members of Congress on the Capitol steps,” Harmeet Dhillon, CEO and founder of the center, said in the release.

Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said he is “satisfied” with the settlement and that the “modest changes” to the regulations about demonstrations were negotiated after the court dismissed most of the plaintiff’s claims. Those changes do not affect the department’s top priority, which is the security of the Capitol and people on the campus, Manger said.

“Each year we protect hundreds of demonstrations to safeguard everyone’s First Amendment rights,” Manger said. “We simply agreed to modify our demonstration practices to allow additional people to demonstrate without a permit and speed up the permit process.”

The directive stems from when Mahoney was denied an application to conduct a prayer vigil on Sept. 11, 2021, in which he wanted to ask God to “protect and watch over America and bring healing to our world and build bridges to our Muslim neighbors.” Mahoney sought to have the vigil after both the outer fence and the inner fence surrounding the Capitol, set up in response to the Jan. 6 attack on the building, were taken down.

In the complaint, Mahoney said although the fencing that enclosed the West Front was removed in July 2021, the government didn’t grant his permit — and said the area was “closed.” Mahoney argued that by allowing other demonstrations to happen, and not giving Mahoney the same opportunity, the government was “discriminating against Rev. Mahoney based on the content of his speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

The Capitol Police Board approved a permit on July 27, 2021, for the American Conservative Union to hold a rally estimated to have 300 attendees on the front, Mahoney argued in the lawsuit. And around that time, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., was permitted to have a demonstration on the east steps of the House over the pending expiration of an eviction moratorium, the lawsuit stated.

Mahoney’s case is still challenging the buffer zone around the Capitol Grounds, specifically the eastern steps of the Capitol.

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