A congregation in Illinois has filed a lawsuit against the governor and local officials, claiming that their orders to stop in-person worship conveyed “discriminatory hostility” to churches.
The Beloved Church of Lena and Pastor Stephen Cassell filed the complaint on Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Rockford.
Beloved Church plans to hold in-person worship on Sunday, despite being told by officials in the past that they are not allowed to hold services during the coronavirus shutdown.
The suit claims that Gov. Jay Pritzker and officials with Lena and Stephenson County unlawfully declared houses of worship “non-essential” when enacting stay-at-home orders.
“On the eve of Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, Pritzker expressly prohibited even no-contact, drive-in services in Illinois church parking lots. At the same time, he declared a laundry list of businesses to be ‘essential,’ from liquor stores to lawyers to landscapers,” the complaint says.
“[Pritzker] has flagrantly violated the fundamental religious liberties of Illinoisans, in violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause and parallel provisions of the Illinois Constitution and statute.”
The church also took issue with the governor’s reported intentions to extend a strict stay-at-home order for the state until the end of May, if not longer.
“Defendants have no compelling justification for their discriminatory treatment of churches and pastors and people of faith, nor have they attempted in any way to tailor their regulations to the least restrictive means necessary to meet any arguable compelling interest,” the church argued.
“Plaintiffs seek temporary and permanent injunctive relief against Pritzker’s orders shuttering their church, church ministries, and pastoral activities, as illegal and unconstitutional on their face and as applied to Plaintiffs.”
Beloved Church and Cassell are being represented by the Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm based in Chicago.
“The spiritual well-being of the people of Illinois is just as important as their temporal well-being during these dark times,” said Society Vice President and Senior Counsel Peter Breen in a statement released Thursday.
“Keeping liquor stores open but indefinitely shutting down churches and religious ministries violates our constitution and our most basic liberties. If liquor stores are ‘essential,’ so are churches.”
As states issue shutdown orders for gatherings of more than 10 people, much debate and litigation has centered on whether houses of worship should be exempted.
The vast majority of churches in the United States have agreed to shut down in-person services to help curb the spread of COVID-19, with many switching to online worship.
Some churches have argued that states cannot lawfully order them to shut down, and they continue to hold services, often with social distancing measures put in place.
In March, several members of an Illinois-based Pentecostal church fell ill after a worship service, with many testing positive for the coronavirus.
The Life Church of Glenview reported at the time that over 40 attendees of a March 15 service became sick, with several testing positive for COVID-19.
“They all haven’t tested but whoever gets a test done ends up being positive, and we all have the same symptoms,” wrote Layna LoCascio, wife of the pastor of the Glenview church, in a Facebook post at the time.
“It’s just not easy. It’s especially not easy when you’re a leader and a pastor of a precious church and we all got infected together.”