Chicago threatens to temporarily close churches that defy gathering restrictions

Metro Praise International Church in Chicago
Metro Praise International Church in Chicago | Google Maps

The city of Chicago has threatened to temporarily close at least three churches that continue to violate the governor’s executive order by holding in-person worship services with over 10 people during the early phases of the city’s coronavirus reopening plan. 

Chicago Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady sent letters to congregations on Saturday, informing them that if they continue to hold in-person worship services with over 10 attendees, the city has the authority under state law to force churches to comply with state orders. 

Such enforcement measures include a “summary abatement,” the letter reads. 

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Arwady argued in the letter that the state has the power “to order that a location be closed and made off-limits to the public ‘to prevent the probable spread of a dangerously contagious or infectious disease … until such a time as the condition can be corrected or the danger to the public health eliminated or reduced in such a manner that no substantial danger to the public’s health any longer exists.’

“In addition, as the Health Commissioner, I have the power and duty ‘to cause all nuisances affecting the health of the public to be abated with all reasonable promptness,’ and general police powers ‘to correct, by whatever means are necessary, any health hazard that presents an immediate risk to the life or health of one or more citizens of the City of Chicago.’” 

One of the churches that received the letter is Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Albany Park, a church that has sued for a temporary injunction against the state order but had its motion rejected by a federal judge. 

The Pentecostal church received an order from Arwady on May 15 directing it not to hold gatherings at its house of worship on North Bernard Street until public health officials indicate that it is safe to do so. 

However, the congregation reportedly held gatherings “far in excess of ten individuals allowed by the Executive Order” and was later issued an administrative notice of violation by the Chicago Police Department. 

“Gatherings held contrary to the Executive Order can result in the unintentional spread of the disease to some of our most vulnerable residents. I appeal to you as a leader in your community and remain hopeful that you will work with me for the health, safety, and welfare of all Chicagoans,” Arwady said in her letter. 

“If you continue to operate in defiance of the Executive Order, the City will pursue all available legal remedies, including those outlined above. Any future gatherings conducted contrary to the Order will be considered a failure to abate and the City will take steps necessary to abate, including Summary Abatement.”

The conservative religious freedom nonprofit Liberty Counsel, which is representing Elim and other Romanian churches in the city, argued in a statement that the city’s threat to conduct a summary abatement is tantamount to a threat to “close or destroy churches.” 

“According to the Illinois Supreme Court, ‘Summary abatement would mean to put down or destroy without process. This means the inspector can, upon his own judgment, cause the alleged nuisance to stop on his own authority and effect a destruction of property at his discretion,’” the law group noted, citing the case of City of Kankakee v. New York Cent. R. Co.

The letter from the city comes as President Donald Trump stated last week that he wants state governments to allow churches to reopen as “essential” entities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for church leaders to consider in their plans to reconvene in-person services as states relax COVID-19 restrictions. 

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on Friday that only outdoor and drive-in services will be allowed when under the next phase of its “Restore Illinois” plan. Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot announced on Friday that the city would enter phase three of the reopening plan in June as long as progress is made on key metrics. 

“In between President Donald Trump’s announcement that houses of worship should open and Memorial Day where we honor brave men and woman who fought and died for our freedom, Chicago threatens to close and even destroy churches,” Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said in a statement. 

“What a contrast. The executive orders from Gov. J.B. Pritzker are an insult to the First Amendment and to all Americans who understand the price and value of religious freedom. Each day the thug tactics to close churches in Illinois gets more bizarre and outrageous. The courts must stop this insanity.” 

In the letter to churches, Arwady pointed out that the spread of COVID-19 in worship-service settings has been documented by the CDC. She cited the case of an Arkansas church linked to at least 35 cases of coronavirus among attendees and three deaths.

“This occurred as a result of just two individuals (index cases) participating in church events several days before they developed symptoms of nonspecific respiratory symptoms and fever,” she noted. “This outbreak highlights the likelihood for widespread transmission of COVID-19 at group gatherings, even before any participants show symptoms.”

Arwady also stressed that the city of Chicago itself has “lost three faith leaders to Coronavirus.”

Other churches that received the letter from Arwardy threatening summary abatement include Metro Praise International and Philadelphia Romanian Church Chicago on Sunnyside Avenue, according to Block Club Chicago.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Metro Praise and Elim Romanian continued to hold services on Sunday. 

“We are very disappointed with all of this, including not being considered as essential in the beginning, as a church,” Metro Praise International Pastor Joe Wyrostek told a local NBC affiliate

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church Pastor Chris Ionescu told NBC5 that there won’t be “a stand down on our part.”

“It’s only the city that escalates,” he said. “I wonder, if they threaten us with such extreme measures, what else is left?”

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