“Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, and their blatant refusal to follow the mandates of the Order are both ill-founded and selfish,” said U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman in his decision on Wednesday denying relief to two Illinois churches who challenged Illinois Governor Pritzker’s stay-at home order prohibiting in-person worship services of more than ten people.
“An injunction would risk the lives of plaintiffs’ congregants, as well as the lives of their family members, friends, co-workers and other members of their communities with whom they come in contact,” the judge continued. “Their interest in communal services cannot and does not outweigh the health and safety of the public.”
Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in suburban Niles, Illinois filed suit against the governor on May 7, claiming his stay-at-home order unconstitutionally restricts their rights to exercise their religion and peaceably assemble.
In a description of the case on its website, Liberty Counsel, which represents the two churches, said, “Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive orders do not allow worship services that include more than 10 people, regardless if participants meet or exceed the appropriate social distancing and hygiene guidelines, while allowing so-called ‘essential’ commercial and non-religious entities such as liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, warehouse clubs, and ‘big box’ stores to accommodate large crowds and masses of persons without scrutiny or the 10-person limit. This 10-person limit applies to all churches, including large churches that have multiple meeting venues, like these two churches.”
Ironically, last week Liberty Counsel won a remarkably similar case in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a church in Kentucky. Unfortunately for the two Illinois churches, however, Illinois is in the 7th Circuit, which has not yet addressed the issues surrounding stay-at-home orders.
Constitutionally, the issues in Kentucky, Illinois and elsewhere boil down to this: if a stay-at-home order bans churches from meeting, but then allows numerous types of secular businesses and entities to open, can the order really be considered a neutral, generally applicable law? The 6th Circuit said no, and Judge Gettleman said yes.
“They congregate to sing, pray and worship together. That takes more time than shopping for liquor or groceries,” the judge wrote.
But there is more at stake for these ethnically Romanian churches than social distancing and cleanliness.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Our Romanian pastors know well the value of freedom. Never did they imagine that in the Land of the Free they would be prohibited from holding church services. This happened all too frequently in Communist Romania. These churches set the model of incorporating social distancing and hygiene into their worship. The government should treat them equally to other non-religious gatherings and businesses. The First Amendment demands nothing less. We have immediately appealed this decision and look forward to presenting arguments at the Court of Appeals.”
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