Two Illinois Churches Lose Challenge Against State’s Mass-Assembly Ban

The Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago, Illinois. (Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church Chicago via Facebook)

(CN) — Two Illinois churches Wednesday lost their bid in federal court for an injunction to keep Governor J.B. Pritzker from enforcing against them an executive order restricting religious gatherings to no more than 10 people during the Covid-19 crisis.  

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in suburban Niles, Illinois, sued the governor May 7, claiming his order unconstitutionally restricts their rights to exercise their religion and peaceably assemble.

“Plaintiffs bring this case to restrain the troubling transgression of their fundamental and cherished liberties wrought by the imposition of Governor Pritzker’s orders surrounding COVID-19,” the 46-page complaint states. “Plaintiffs seek not to discredit or discard the government’s unquestionable interest in doing that task for which it was instituted — protecting the citizenry. But, as is often true in times of crisis, Plaintiffs respectfully submit that in an effort to uphold his sworn duties Governor Pritzker has stepped over a line the Constitution does not permit.”

The churches noted in their complaint that many of their members chose to come to the U.S. after fleeing communist oppression in Romania that targeted religious gatherings. 

“Some of the pastors and members of Plaintiffs’ churches experienced such persecution personally, and had hoped to never experience it again in the great experiment of American freedom,” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order preventing their pastors and congregants from being subject to criminal sanctions for hosting in-person worship services Sunday.  Although the court determined it would not issue a restraining order before the weekend’s services, Elim Romanian decided to hold a service on Sunday anyway — one that more than 120 people attended. 

In a court document filed Sunday, Elim Romanian’s Senior Pastor Christian Ionescu said the church took health and safety precautions, cordoning off 85% of the auditorium’s 750 seats, hiring cleaners to disinfect the premises Saturday, and taking the temperature of anyone who wanted to attend the service. The pastor said they enforced a six-food “bubble zone” around each attendee and provided hand sanitizer, gloves and masks for anyone who wished to use them. 

The church also asked congregants to “sing and pray in much lower and softer voices than they might otherwise.” In a report published Tuesday on the outbreak of Covid-19 cases among members of a choir in Washington state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “the act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission” of the virus through aerosol emission, which is affected by the “loudness of vocalization.” Somewhere between 53 and 87% of people who attended the Skagit Valley Chorale choir practice March 10 were infected with the virus. 

“We do not seek to make a political statement,” Ionescu wrote. “We do not seek special treatment, such as to be able to meet for worship free of any precautionary measures. We only seek to be treated equally with other ‘essential’ places, so that — with proper safety precautions and social distancing that meet or exceed what the others are doing — we can corporately and collectively worship God according to our religious mandates and our conscience.”

On Wednesday, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman, a Bill Clinton appointee, denied the churches’ motion for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction, calling their request and refusal to follow the executive order “ill-founded and selfish.”

“The harm to plaintiffs if the Order is enforced pales in comparison to the dangers to society if it is not,” Gettleman said. “The record clearly reveals how virulent and dangerous COVID-19 is, and how many people have died and continue to die from it … 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.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot espoused similar sentiments on Wednesday.

“As a person of faith, I understand the wish for communal prayer. What I don’t understand are the reckless calls to break @GovPritzker’s Stay at Home Order. The data is clear: staying home and avoiding congregate settings saves lives. Not just your lives, but the lives of others,” Lightfoot tweeted.

“For the sake of our loved ones, neighbors and community members, do not congregate. We need to be in collaboration, not conflict, and our hope is that the better angels of our nature — and a sincere sense of care and support for others — will prevail,” she added.

As of Wednesday, there were a total of 84,698 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 3,792 deaths in Illinois, including 56,406 cases and 2,589 deaths in Cook County, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.  

Gettleman said the plaintiffs did not prove the executive order targets religion even though the order includes exemptions for essential businesses, such as liquor stores and warehouse superstores. 

“Gatherings at places of worship pose higher risks of infection than gatherings at Businesses,” Gettleman said. 

“The congregants do not just stop by Elim Church,” he added. “They congregate to sing, pray, and worship together. That takes more time than shopping for liquor or groceries. The word ‘congregate,’ from which the term ‘congregation’ derives, means to ‘gather into a crowd or mass.’ 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.”

In pictures included in Ionescu’s supplemental declaration, it does not appear that any of the Sunday service attendees opted to wear face coverings. 

Attorneys from the conservative Christian legal organization Liberty Counsel are representing the plaintiffs in the case, and announced the churches’ filed an appeal after Gettleman’s ruling came down Wednesday. 

“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,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement. “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.” 

Many churches around the country have filed suits challenging assembly restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, with varying results. 

On Friday, a federal court in Kentucky ruled that the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Nicholasville could resume in-person church services, finding that Governor Andy Beshear did not have a “compelling reason” to limit a citizen’s right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. 

The Sixth Circuit issued a contradictory ruling Saturday, ordering that Maryville Baptist Church — another Kentucky church — could hold drive-in worship services but declined to completely halt Beshear’s temporary mass-gathering ban. 

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