Illinois Churches Lose Challenge to Ban on Mass Gatherings

(AP Photo/Rod McGuirk, File)

CHICAGO (CN) — A panel of Seventh Circuit judges upheld Illinois’ Covid-19 stay-at-home rules Tuesday, refusing to issue an injunction against Governor J.B. Pritzker’s decision to restrict indoor religious gatherings to no more than 10 people.

The quick decision was made after oral arguments last Friday, in which two Chicago-area churches said the governor was discriminating against religion by not allowing them to hold in-person worship services as part of his plan to battle the pandemic.

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in suburban Niles, Illinois, both serving Romanian Christians, sued Governor Pritzker in May, alleging he was violating several First Amendment rights by targeting religious congregations.

The churches said in their complaint that it is discriminatory that commercial businesses like grocery stores and warehouses have been allowed to remain open while their members were forced to stay away.

Both Elim and Logos began holding in person services with dozens of attendees on the Sunday after their lawsuit was filed, neither deterred by a $500 disorderly conduct fine Elim received from the city.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman, a Bill Clinton appointee, denied their motion for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the state from enforcing its order, calling the churches selfish in a time of crisis.

“Plaintiffs have provided no evidence that the order targets religion,” the judge said, adding that church services are not comparable to shopping or manufacturing.

“The order has nothing to do with suppressing religion and everything to do with reducing infections and saving lives,” he said.

Arguing in the churches’ appeal of that decision last week, Horatio Mihet of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel said that there is no reason religious institutions can’t hold services and follow the same protocols as stores and warehouses do.

Assistant Attorney General Priyanka Gupta countered that church services were more like concerts and lectures, which have also been regulated under the order.

She added that the seriousness of Covid-19 means that everyone is subject to restrictions, and churches are no exception.

A three-judge panel of the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court Tuesday, with Ronald Reagan-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Frank H. Easterbrook writing for the panel that religious institutions had fared better than their secular counterparts over the last few months.

The panel – which also included U.S. Circuit Judges Michael S. Kanne, another Reagan appointee, and David F. Hamilton, a Barack Obama appointee – noted that churches have at least been allowed to continue services with the 10-person limit, while concert halls, schools and movie theaters have been completely shut down.

“Plaintiffs contend, however, that a limit of ten persons effectively forecloses their in-person religious services, even though they are free to hold multiple ten-person services every week, and that the governor’s proposed alternatives — services over the internet or in parking lots while worshipers remain in cars — are inadequate for them,” Easterbrook wrote in a 12-page opinion.

Churches have also been allowed to perform other activities, such as feeding and sheltering the homeless, and the 10-person limit on their worship services was lifted with the newest version of the governor’s order.

“The churches are particularly put out that their members may assemble to feed the poor but not to celebrate their faith,” Easterbrook said, adding that “feeding the body requires teams of people to work together in physical spaces, but churches can feed the spirit in other ways.”

“The free exercise clause does not require a state to accommodate religious functions or exempt them from generally applicable laws,” the ruling concluded. “Illinois did not set out to disadvantage religious services compared with secular events. Nor does the order discriminate among faiths.”

Neither attorney nor the governor’s office returned a request for comment on the decision.

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