Churches sue Ill. Gov. Pritzker for restricting in-person worship to 10 people

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers his first budget address to a joint session of the Illinois House and Senate at the Illinois State Capitol on February 20, 2019, in Springfield, Illinois.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers his first budget address to a joint session of the Illinois House and Senate at the Illinois State Capitol on February 20, 2019, in Springfield, Illinois. | E. Jason Wambsgans/Pool/Getty Images

A federal judge has ruled that Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker's religious freedom add-on makes the state's stay-at-home order constitutional, but a new lawsuit has emerged. 

Pritzker announced this week that his "Restore Illinois" plan to reopen the state will be implemented in five phases. The plan divides the state into four regions and the degree of reopening allowed will be based on COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, and intensive-care units.

In phase three, only gatherings of 10 people or fewer will be allowed. In phase four, gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed. And gatherings of more than 50 people won't be allowed until phase five, when there has been "a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases over a sustained period," which is expected to take up to a year or longer. 

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a vaccine is 12 to 18 months away from being available to the public.

Banning church gatherings of more than 50 people for a year or longer is unacceptable for many churches and some are now taking legal action against the governor. 

Christian legal firm Liberty Counsel has filed a lawsuit against Pritzker on behalf of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries, two Illinois churches whose complaint points out that in other jurisdictions, such as Louisville, Kentucky, "the government threatened to use police to impose criminal sanctions on those individuals found in violation of similar COVID-19 orders and threatened to impose various sanctions on individuals found in violation of such orders."

The judge's decision last Sunday that Pritzker's stay-at-home order is constitutional came the same day that an evangelical church, The Beloved Church of Lena, welcomed more than 100 worshipers for a Sunday service in defiance of the state order.

“Given the continuing threat posed by COVID-19, the [stay-at-home] Order preserves relatively robust avenues for praise, prayer and fellowship and passes constitutional muster,” Judge John Z. Lee of the U.S. district court for the Northern District of Illinois, ruled in his 37-page decision.

Pritzker's revised version of the state stay-at-home order deems some worship services as essential, provided that “Religious organizations and houses of worship are encouraged to use online or drive-in services to protect the health and safety of their congregants.”

Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society represented The Beloved Church of Lena.

"Today, when we started the day, we couldn't even drive on a church parking lot,” Breen said in an April 30 interview with CBS affiliate WIFR.

“In fact, you couldn't even leave your house to go to a church service. Now you can do that. And in fact, the executive order now encourages people to have drive-in services; which is a great recommendation, I'm glad that they added it," he said.

The federal judge cited in his ruling precedent in two cases — Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) and Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) — which held that “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease” and “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the communicable disease,” according to The Chicago Sun-Times.

Since state-issued lockdown orders began in March in an attempt to reduce the number of coronavirus hospitalizations at any one time, a much-debated topic has been how much authority government officials have to restrict religious freedoms to safeguard public health.

Commenting on its clients lawsuit against the governor of Illinois' order banning worship gathering of more than 50 people for up to a year or longer, Liberty Counsel said on its website Friday: "The Romanian pastors, and many who attend these churches, are all too familiar with the heavy hand of government against churches and Christians. Pastors living in the former Communist Romania were arrested and jailed for preaching off the approved script of the Communist regime, or for meeting in places forbidden by the government. Many pastors who fled to America endured arrests, and some even beatings and torture. The Communists banned missionary activity and confiscated smuggled Bibles as contraband."

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver added: “Governor Pritzker has clearly discriminated against churches by limiting in-person services to only 10 people while allowing other commercial and secular businesses to operate with large gatherings of people. In addition, the governor states it may be more than a year until this limit on churches can be lifted. This is unconstitutional as churches have the First Amendment right to exist, but businesses do not. In the land of the free, these Romanian pastors and church members should never have to fear arrest or sanction for attending worship services in church.”

Follow Brandon Showalter on Facebook: BrandonMarkShowalterFollow Brandon Showalter on Twitter: @BrandonMShow

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