Peter C. Breen
Peter C. Breen

The stack of legal challenges against Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders grew Thursday, with a church in northwest Illinois challenging the policies in federal court on religious-freedom grounds.

The 33-page complaint was filed by the Thomas More Society on behalf of the Beloved Church in Lena — a small village in Stephenson County — and its pastor, Stephen Cassell.

It names Pritzker, Stephenson County Sheriff David Snyders, Lena Police Chief Steve Schaible and Stephenson County public health administrator Craig Beintema as defendants.

The plaintiffs want a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order that would exclude them and other members of the Evangelical Christian congregation from Pritzker’s order, which now runs through May.

They allege Pritzker’s emergency actions amid the coronavirus outbreak demonstrate “an illegal and discriminatory hostility to religious practice, churches, and people of faith,” and violate their right to exercise religion, speak freely and assemble as guaranteed under the First and 14th Amendments.

Pritzker’s March 20 stay-at-home order listed “businesses and religious and secular nonprofit organizations” as essential, but only authorized them to remain open during the pandemic if they provide “food, shelter, and social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals, individuals who need assistance as a result of this emergency, and people with disabilities.”

Pritzker renewed that order and its restrictions on April 1 and again on Thursday, this time carving out a change in its language around permitted examples of leaving home for “essential activities.”

The new extended order says citizens may leave their home “to engage in the free exercise of religion, provided that such exercise must comply with [s]ocial [d]istancing [r]equirements and the limit on gatherings of more than ten people in keeping with CDC guidelines for the protection of public health.”

It also encourages “religious organizations and houses of worship” to “use online or drive-in services to protect the health and safety of their congregants.”

Before signing the new order on Thursday, Pritzker called Cassell a “bit of an outlier” among the pastors and faith leaders across the state that have connected with parishioners while complying with his administration’s restrictions amid the outbreak. 

“But everybody has the right to sue, and we’ve seen in multiple states now, people have filed lawsuits on various things having to do with the stay-at-home order, but we’re gonna keep doing what we need to do to keep people safe,” Pritzker said, adding that law enforcement won’t “break up a gathering of churchgoers,” but that there are consequences to violating his orders, which the state has the ability to enforce.

The church’s complaint contends the Stephenson County Department of Public Health delivered a cease-and-desist notice to Cassell on March 31, instructing the pastor to heed Pritzker’s order.

That notice and Pritzker’s orders violate the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, they contend, which prohibits the state from “substantially burden[ing] a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (i) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and (ii) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Requiring churches to close, while allowing other businesses like liquor stores to remain open, the suit states, has “intentionally denigrated Illinois churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to second-class citizenship.”

“Plaintiffs believe that, in these dark times, Illinoisans need the Spirit of Almighty God, but Pritzker’s orders have left them to settle for the lesser spirits dispensed out of the state’s liquor stores,” the suit says. “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 suit further cites “official hostility to religious exercise” expressed by Pritzker, alleging that he has reaffirmed the state’s ban on drive-in parking lot church services by threatening criminal enforcement of his orders.

Still, the church suspended all of its communal activities — but it intends to “reopen and hold public worship services this Sunday,” and church leaders “justifiably fear arrest and prosecution if they do so, without immediate relief from this Court,” the suit states.

Pritzker said he hopes church congregants and leaders do the right thing.

“And I think the parishioners, by the way, ought to do the right thing and ask those who are faith leaders either not to hold those services or simply ask that they have something online that they can connect to rather than the potential for being infected,” Pritzker said.

Thursday’s filing comes on the heels of two lawsuits recently filed in state courts questioning the legality of Pritzker’s orders.

A ruling in one of those suits — handed down Monday at the Clay County Courthouse in Louisville by 4th Judicial Circuit Judge Michael D. McHaney — temporarily blocks Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home orders from applying to state Rep. Darren Bailey, a Republican from Xenia who filed suit against Pritzker last week.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Y. Raoul on Wednesday petitioned a review of McHaney’s order before the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon and filed an emergency motion for direct appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court.

The other suit — a putative class-action filed Wednesday by state Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park — asks a Winnebago County judge to enjoin Pritzker from enforcing the restrictions in his March 20 executive order or from entering any other stay-at-home orders against Cabello and “all citizens similarly situated.”

Both Bailey’s and Cabello’s suits allege the governor exceeded his executive powers under the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act. They also argue the IEMA Act does not allow Pritzker to extend his initial March 20 executive order beyond 30 days, and that the governor’s authority to exercise emergency powers lapsed on April 9.

The church’s suit largely echoes those legal arguments, adding that Pritzker lacks authority under the IEMA Act to impose a quarantine or isolation on Illinois residents, or to order shutdowns of Illinois churches. 

Former state rep. Peter C. Breen, a Thomas More Society attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in a press release that the new executive order is only a partial victory.

“We can now celebrate the fact that the ban on religious services in Illinois has been lifted – every church and pastor in the Land of Lincoln can bring their flock together at least for drive-in services or small gatherings, as appropriate. This is a welcome way point on the road to that day when our churches are full again,” he said in the release.

This case is The Beloved Church, et al., v. Jay Robert Pritzker, et. al., No. 20 C 50153.