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Governor of Illinois Capitulates After Churches Appeal to SCOTUS

Governor of Illinois

Amid legal challenges that swiftly escalated to the Supreme Court, the Governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, has issued new recommendations for religious services. The revised guidelines, which coincide with the state’s move into phase three of a five-phase reopening plan, suggest limiting attendance to 25 percent of building capacity, with a maximum of 100 people.

In the governor’s May 1 stay-at-home order, churches were deemed essential but gatherings were limited to 10 people. That limit is still recommended but not mandated in the revised guidelines, which also urge caution and list steps to reduce disease transmission. Previously, Pritzker indicated it might be more than a year before Illinois churches could meet at full capacity.

Two Churches Sought Help From SCOTUS

On Wednesday, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church of Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries of Niles filed an emergency application with the U.S. Supreme Court, saying Illinois’ restrictions were unconstitutional. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who oversees the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, requested a quick response from the Governor of Illinois, who indicated the case is now moot.

“Religious gatherings will no longer be subject to mandatory restrictions,” the state noted in its filing. On Thursday, Pritzker said the state health department is providing new guidance after “having received many plans and ideas from responsible faith leaders.”

Before seeking relief from the Supreme Court, the churches had been overruled by two lower courts, which said the governor’s order “does not discriminate against religious activities.” The lower courts said churches should be compared not to grocery and liquor stores but to schools and theaters. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman indicated the congregations’ request for a preliminary injunction was “both ill-founded and selfish.”

Liberty Counsel, which represents the churches, calls the turn of events a “complete victory in the near term” but warns in a reply brief that Pritzker “cannot be trusted to obey the Constitution.” Mat Staver, Liberty founder and chairman, says the governor’s “sudden change in policy is merely a litigation ploy,” adding, “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.”

In a Facebook post, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church rejoiced that “God has destroyed the pharaonical resistance of Illinois state leadership!” When the church met for in-person worship earlier this month—resulting in a fine from Chicago police—it says it exceeded recommended safety measures.

Risk Remains, Warn Health Experts and Governor of Illinois

Illinois health officials emphasize that the revised guidelines don’t “obligate or encourage places of worship to resume in-person activity.” Rather, they “strongly” recommend continued use of online services, “particularly for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, including older adults and those with co-morbidities.” Gov. Pritzker has indicated he’s particularly concerned about elderly and African-American worshipers, as statistics indicate they’re at higher risk of getting the novel coronavirus.

Illinois’ new guidelines acknowledge the “desire for the human connection of worshiping together, particularly during a time of crisis” but warn that “gatherings of any size pose a risk” of virus transmission. Officials recommend holding church outside, if possible, and wearing masks and maintaining physical distance when inside. The state health department’s list of “riskiest activities” includes singing, group recitation, hugging and shaking hands, and eating or drinking together.