A federal judge on Wednesday denied a restraining order to two area churches seeking to bring back in-person religious services being limited by the state’s stay-at-home order.
The Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles sued the state on Friday, alleging a provision in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive orders that limits the size of religious gatherings violates the congregations’ right to worship.
They also asked for a temporary restraining order that would prohibit “criminal sanctions” against the churches, their staff or congregants for holding in-person worship under Pritzker’s recently announced “Restore Illinois” plan.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman denied the TRO request, writing in a 12-page order that Pritzker’s order “without doubt, is rationally based in light of the need to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Illinois.”
The legitimate governmental purpose behind the emergency orders means they don’t violate freedoms of speech, religion or assembly under the First Amendment, Gettleman wrote.
“In any event, the [o]rder obviously has a secular purpose to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Its primary effect neither advances nor prohibits religion. It does not favor one religion over another, or religion as such,” he wrote. “Plaintiff’s argument that the [o]rder inhibits religion because it does not limit other essential businesses to ten persons or fewer fails for the same reason its Free Exercise [c]laim fails. Finally, the [o]rder in no way fosters government entanglement with religion.”
Gettleman’s ruling also cited the decision issued last week in Cassell v. Snyders, No. 20 C 50153, by U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee, which denied an injunction to The Beloved Church, a house of worship in the northwest Illinois village of Lena.
“As noted in Cassell, the [o]rder has nothing to do with suppressing religion and everything to do with reducing infections and saving lives,” Gettleman wrote. “There is no evidence that defendant has a history of animus toward religion.”
The two plaintiff churches in the case before Gettleman told the court last Thursday they would sanitize facilities before services and offer hand sanitizer throughout the facility. They also vowed to practice strict social distancing guidelines, reduce seating, encourage face coverings prop doors open.
Gettleman gave the state until Saturday to file a response and the plaintiffs until Sunday to reply.
Services at Elim proceeded anyway on Sunday with more than 10 people and without congregants wearing face coverings, Gettleman wrote.
“Indeed, the church’s YouTube channel lists a live recording from last Sunday’s service that was one hour, forty-seven minutes long, with virtually no one in the congregation or clergy wearing a face covering,” Gettleman wrote.
“Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, and their blatant refusal to follow the mandates of the [o]rder are both ill-founded and selfish. 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. Their interest in communal services cannot and does not outweigh the health and safety of the public.”
Attorneys for Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group that filed the suit on behalf of the churches, plan to ask for an expedited appeal from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Thomas More Society, who represent the plaintiffs in the Cassell case, appealed that ruling last week.
Mathew D. Staver, who chairs Liberty Counsel, said he has been in contact with attorneys involved in the Cassell case and expects a favorable ruling on both appeals because of a recent 3-0 decision in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In Maryville Baptist Church v. Beshear, the Cincinnati-based appeals panel enjoined the state of Kentucky from enforcing Gov. Andy Beshear’s ban on mass gatherings, allowing parking lot worship services to take place.
“If we don’t get a victory in 7th, then with the solid decisions in the 6th, that’s a classic setup for the Supreme Court, which we think we would win at,” Staver said.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Attorney General’s office could not be reached for comment.
This case is Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, et al., v. Jay Robert Pritzker, No. 20 C 2782.