U.S. judge sides with Pritzker in religious challenge as governor moves more lawsuits to federal court

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman found Pritzker’s order “has nothing to do with suppressing religion and everything to do with reducing infections and saving lives.”

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Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church service on May 10.

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church service on May 10.

U.S. District Court records

For the second time this month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order survived a religious challenge in federal court Wednesday, this time from a pair of churches that sought to hold worship services with strict social-distancing guidelines in place. 

The two wins followed an initial, stinging rebuke to Pritzker’s order by a judge in late April. But that rebuke occurred in state court. And that might explain, at least in part, why Pritzker’s lawyers have been moving lawsuits challenging his stay-at-home order out of state courts and into federal court.

“Because the cases raise federal constitutional questions, the appropriate step is to move them to federal court,” Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s press secretary, said when asked about the move.

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman denied in a 12-page ruling Wednesday a bid for a temporary restraining order from Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles. The churches wanted to hold worship services while reducing seating, designating entry and exit points, offering hand sanitizer and cleaning facilities. 

However, the church in Chicago went forward with services last Sunday, and Gettleman pointed out that photos show congregants did not wear face coverings during the service. Further, Gettleman said the churches “provided no evidence that (Pritzker’s) order targets religion.”

Rather, Gettleman echoed an earlier ruling from U.S. District Judge John Lee this month, denying a temporary restraining order to a church in Lena that sought to hold worship services. Gettleman agreed with Lee that popular comparisons between churches and grocery or liquor stores are not apt. 

“The purpose of shopping is not to gather with others or engage them in conversation and fellowship, but to purchase necessary items and then leave as soon as possible,” Lee wrote in his decision. 

Both judges agreed churches are more comparable to schools or movies theaters or concert halls, where people are also not gathering. The judges also found that Pritzker has no history of animus toward religion. 

“The order has nothing to do with suppressing religion and everything to do with reducing infections and saving lives,” Gettleman wrote Wednesday. 

A third religious challenge to Pritzker’s order has surfaced in federal court in Springfield, where a church is seeking an order allowing it to conduct worship services outdoors. But that’s only one of a handful of challenges now pending in federal court, thanks to moves this week by Pritzker’s attorneys. 

Pritzker’s earlier loss in state court came as a result of a challenge to his stay-at-home order from state Rep. Darren Bailey. Bailey won a temporary restraining order from Clay County Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney, who declared “the Bill of Rights is being shredded” every second Pritzker’s order is in place. The restraining order only applied to Bailey and has since been vacated. 

Bailey is represented by downstate attorney Tom DeVore, who filed a new complaint on Bailey’s behalf Wednesday claiming a 2001 opinion by then-Attorney General Jim Ryan undermines Pritzker’s orders. 

DeVore has also since filed lawsuits on behalf of Rep. John Cabello in Winnebago County, a hair salon owner in Clay County, and restaurant owners in Clinton and Carroll counties. Earlier this week, Pritzker’s attorneys moved the lawsuits from Cabello, the salon owner and the restaurant owners to federal court. 

“I think he went to the federal court because he’s not liking the results in the state court,” DeVore told the Sun-Times.

But DeVore added, “we will absolutely defend those people in federal court.”

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