Churches target Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan in new federal court challenge

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles are insisting on the right to worship with extensive social distancing guidelines in place.

SHARE Churches target Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan in new federal court challenge
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, along with elected and health officials give their daily update on the coronavirus situation in Illinois on Monday.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, along with elected and health officials give their daily update on the coronavirus situation in Illinois on Monday.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s battle against the coronavirus faces a new religious challenge in federal court, this time from churches in Chicago and Niles opposing his Restore Illinois plan and insisting on the right to worship with extensive social distancing guidelines in place.

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries in Niles asked for a temporary restraining order Friday. Just last week, a church west of Rockford launched a similar but unsuccessful challenge that has moved on to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The governor’s executive order protects the free exercise of religion,” Pritzker press secretary JordanAbudayyeh said in an emailed statement. “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.”

However, the latest lawsuit points to Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan —unveiled just this week — and the two churches laid out proposed social distancing guidelines they would implement if allowed to move forward.

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said Friday he would not issue a temporary restraining order in time for this Sunday’s services.

Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church has a 40,000-square-foot campus with 750 seats in its main auditorium and 550 seats in overflow rooms, according to the lawsuit. Logos Baptist Ministries has a 36,000-square-foot campus with 425 seats in its main auditorium and an overflow room with 100 seats, it said.

The two churches proposed reduced seating by removing chairs when possible and limiting pew access while allowing families to sit together. The churches also said they would sanitize facilities before services, tell attendees they could wear masks and/or gloves, advise people not to shake hands or have physical contact with others, offer hand sanitizer throughout the facility and distribute it as people arrive, designate separate exits and entries, prop doors open so they don’t need to be touched, and ask anyone with coronavirus symptoms or at risk of coronavirus not to attend.

“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 lawsuit said.

Pritzker laid out his five-phase Restore Illinois plan Tuesday, telling reporters Illinois had already moved to Phase 2. Phase 3 would allow gatherings of 10 people, and Phase 4 would limit gatherings to 50 people. The final Phase 5 would require “a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases” of coronavirus, he said.

Specific public health metrics would decide when regions of the state may move into each phase.

“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 lawsuit said.

The Beloved Church of Lena, about 50 miles west of Rockford, also asked the federal courts to intervene against Pritzker’s restrictions last week. Its bid for a temporary restraining order was shot down by U.S. District Judge John Lee, who said Pritzker’s stay-at-home order “preserves relatively robust avenues for praise, prayer and fellowship and passes constitutional muster,” given the coronavirus threat.

The Beloved Church has taken its case to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking Lee again this week for an injunction while the appeal played out — a request Lee declined.

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