Faced with an imminent U.S. Supreme Court fight, Illinois Governor Jay R. Pritzker yesterday chose to abandon his church closure executive orders rather than face the justices over an appeal from two Illinois churches that have been the targets of government coercion and threats over the last few weeks for holding in-church worship services.
Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries have been challenging the governor’s closure orders which, according to the churches’ legal papers filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, “impose a unique 10-person limit on religious worship services that is not imposed on customers or employees of ‘big box’ retail stores, liquor stores, restaurants, office buildings, warehouses, factories, or other businesses and activities which, like worship services, have been deemed ‘Essential’ by Governor Pritzker.”
The churches, represented by Liberty Counsel, a First Amendment legal firm, unsuccessfully sought help from the federal courts in Illinois, including the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, before asking for emergency relief in the form of an injunction from the Supreme Court allowing them to hold in-church worship services this Sunday, May 31.
The churches have defied the governor’s requirements by holding services while observing the recommended social distancing and cleanliness guidelines applicable to other “essential” activities and entities allowed under those executive orders.
On May 23, the City of Chicago delivered a letter to the churches declaring them “public nuisances” and threatening them with legal action, up to and including “summary abatement,” which under Illinois law can include the destruction of property by the government.
On Wednesday, May 27, the churches filed an emergency request for an “injunction pending appeal” with the Supreme Court, which, if granted, would allow them to continue to hold worship services while the underlying constitutional challenges from the churches could be properly argued and decided in the courts. Justice Kavanaugh, who is the designated justice to receive such emergency appeals in cases arising within the 7th Circuit, ordered Illinois officials to respond to the churches’ emergency request by 8 p.m. on Thursday.
Just hours before that deadline, Gov. Pritzker announced he was removing any mandatory requirements for churches and substituting only voluntary guidelines. Although the governor claims that his closure order was set to expire today (May 29) anyway, the churches’ lawyer, Mat Staver, isn’t buying it. In a press release, he noted that the Governor’s sudden change of heart was motivated by the litigation:
“The fact that [Gov. Pritzker] recently said that churches would never get above 50 people for at least 12 to 18 months, and now a few hours before he had to file with the Supreme Court he removes all restrictions, illustrates that he had no basis for the orders in the first place. The only thing that changed was he was dragged to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. While we are happy that all churches and houses of worship no longer have any restrictions, we want to make sure this tyranny and abuse never happens again.”