Several Illinois churches have filed a Federal lawsuit challening Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker’s “Five Point” coronavirus plan, which could see gatherings of more than 50 people for religious services banned until 2021 unless a vaccine or reliable treatment for the virus becomes available.
Pritzker announced the “Five Point” plan last Wednesday, banning gatherings of 50 people or more until “Phase 5″ — a phase that only takes effect when “a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases.” Gatherings of fewer than 50 people would be allowed in “Phase 4” of the plan, though when that may take effect is not clear.
“Specific public health metrics” will guide movement between phases, per the Chicago Sun-Times and “essential businesses” are listed as exempt from gathering restrictions.
The plan is a slight improvement over Illinois’ current situation. “Previously, religious services of any kind in the state—including drive-in and in-person services—were curtailed during the pandemic, and even other forms of sacramental practice such as drive-in confessions were not allowed,” Catholic News Service reported last week.
But critics of the plan were quick to point out that while Pritzker’s roadmap allows for individuals to crowd in retailers, restaurants, and even marijuana dispensaries (many of which have never closed, because they are listed as “essential” businesses in Illinois’ coronavirus plans), but creates a de facto ban on the free exercise of religion, particularly when religious services require large gatherings or the sharing of food or drink, or feature practices not considered “orthodox” under Pritzker’s plan.
Critics also suggested Pritzker was looking for a “miracle cure” that may never come.
“While there is always a possibility that some miracle cure may emerge, that is entirely uncertain and should not be the basis for setting policy, especially policy in relation to our communities of faith,” Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society told CNS last week. “[Pritzker] has at least brought churches out of the abyss of ‘non-essential,’ but he has not fully elevated them to the heights of being an ‘essential’ business or operation.”
The Thomas More Society is suing the state on behalf of The Beloved Church in Lena, Illinois. Their case, which predates the new order, is being appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
Two other churches, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago, Illinois and Logos Baptist Ministries, located in the Chicago suburbs, are seeking an injunction against Pritzker’s new order, saying that they’ve taken substantial steps to protect worshippers and believe the governor’s orders go too far.
“To be clear, plaintiffs merely seek a (temporary restraining order) preventing plaintiffs, their pastors, and their congregants from being subject to criminal sanctions for hosting in-person worship services on Sunday during which plaintiffs will implement social distancing and hygiene protections on an equal basis with other non-religious gatherings,” the complaint, filed last week, says.
Pritzker’s office says it’s taken steps to ensure that the free exercise of religion is protected.
“The governor’s executive order protects the free exercise of religion,” the governor’s press secretary said in an email to the Sun-Times. “In the last week, a federal court has considered these exact claims and arguments and ruled that the executive order does not violate the constitution.”
But the churches say the problem with the governor’s edict is that it defines what the state believes to be “orthodox” worship — and their services fall outside that definition, rendering their services illegal under the law until there’s a cure for COVID-19.
“If plaintiffs, their pastors, or their members do not subscribe to what Governor Pritzker has prescribed as orthodox in a worship service, they risk becoming criminals in the state,” the complaint says.
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